Spiral is content lean into cheap scare tactics at the expense of the more novel, potent direction is could have taken.
New horror thriller Spiral clearly wants to be the LGBTQ-facing version of Get Out, and that palpable aspiration informs the entire film. In fairness, as far as gore-tinged allegories go, it’s an angle that holds promise, and in the right hands could have been something special. Among the many sad realities of 2020, one is that it still takes some sort of bravado to open your horror flick with a man-on-man make out session, and director Kurtis David Harder welcomingly makes no bones about Spiral’s aims. This opening sequence is immediately followed by a brutal hate crime, the suggestion of a topical take explicitly teased, but the rest of the film is sadly unable to deliver. The year is 1995, which is stupid, but more on that later. Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Ari Cohen star as Malik and Aaron, a gay married couple who move with their teenage daughter to an unnamed Midwestern suburb. Malik instantly believes that their apparently kind and adoring neighbors despise their lifestyle, an instinct that seems astute when, after only one day, their house is vandalized and a gay slur is written on their walls. Before long, Malik becomes convinced that the local community is involved in some sort of Satanic cult in which he and his family members will serve as sacrifices. But also, Malik may or may not be having hallucinations of dead lesbian ghosts. There is also a scene in a library involving microfiche. Spiral is that type of movie.
It’s quite obvious what Harder and screenwriters Colin Minihan and John Poliquin are going for here: Malik is still haunted by memories of the aforementioned hate crime he witnessed years ago, shaping him into an individual who is unable to trust even those who love and support him. At one point, Malik has an emotional breakdown in front of his daughter, declaring that everything he told her about living out loud was a lie, and that a person should hide their true self if they ever hope to be happy and accepted. It’s a sobering bit of psychological acuity, the real-life horror of layered trauma (specifically of marginalized and persecuted individuals) far scarier than any gimmicky genre riffs a screenwriter might craft. It’s even more frustrating, then, that Spiral insists on pulling its punches, opting instead for cheap scare tactics — the film’s musical cues are oppressively loud and entirely bonkers — and stupid plot twists. The ending is particularly lame, a misguided effort to illustrate the never-ending…spiral of hate. And this is after a wholly more affecting end note actually takes place ten minutes earlier. The finale also attempts to validate the specificity of 1995 as a setting, an unnecessary and vaguely tone-deaf detail given the still-rampant hate and intolerance that exist today — couching all of this in the past adds nothing but an unwelcome wrinkle to the film’s messaging. None of these considerable problems are helped by acting that is across-the-board terrible, with the exception of Lochlyn Munro, who delivers a surprisingly restrained and chilling performance as a suspicious neighbor. It’s certainly an unexpected turn from the actor who will likely always be best known as the “That’s not beer!” guy from 1998’s Dead Man on Campus. I guess Spiral has a few surprises after all.
You can stream Kurtis David Harder’s Spiral on Shudder beginning Sept. 17.