Spiral Review: Evokes intriguing LGBT horror in not so thrilling fashion
When I originally saw a trailer for the indie horror flick Spiral as it was being promoted for its debut on the horror streaming service Shudder, it’s reminiscence to Get Out with more of an LGBT direction immediately caught my eye and actually made me consider subscribing to the platform to check it out. However, although my love for the horror genre pretty much guarantees a subscription for Shudder is surely in my future, I didn’t need to since Spiral recently came to wider VOD services and after checking the film out, it sadly couldn’t fully live up to the hype.
The film follows gay couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) as they move to a small suburban town with Aaron’s teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). Upon arriving, Malik notices some of the strange behavior of his neighbors as well as some backhanded compliments and passive aggressive aimed at his and Aaron’s relationship. However, as he suspects something much more sinister occurring that stems from a ritualistic history within the town, Malik becomes suspicious of everyone around him and question their intentions. Now as he attempts to solve what is happening to him and deal with the resurgence of a traumatic incident from this youth, Malik must figure out if these neighbors actually have something deadly in store for him and his family or if his own sanity is spiraling out of control.
Spiral is the kind of film that’s less about delivering frights at every turn and more about dissecting its characters and the struggles they face as their fears grow throughout the film. Right away it’s very easy to understand the dynamic and slight sense of tension between Malik, Aaron, and Kayla as a new family. The split between Aaron and Kayla’s mom clearly caused from fractures in their relationship while Malik not only struggles with finding financially fruitful work but is also resistant to make connections with the majority heterosexual people around him because of personal trauma from his youth that still haunts him. However, their relationships aren’t filled with spite, but rather a heartwarming snark that makes you instantly like their dynamic. Even small squabbles and some light-hearted sass doesn’t overpower the genuine chemistry shown and the really strong performance from Bowyer-Chapman.
Bowyer-Chapman’s performance is easily one of the most compelling elements of Spiral with how he brings out the unique emotional pain and panic Malik is dealing with. Just in the first few moments of meeting Malik, it’s hard not to love the role he plays in creating a sense of comfort between Aaron and Kayla and delivering some delightful snark that makes you laugh and love his charm. Then, once his traumatic experience of watching a friend be beaten for being gay and his worries about something sinister happening around them start to take control, it’s easier to connect to him on a deeper level. The pain that Malik still feels about seeing his friend get beat and the paranoia and fear he feels in thinking that his whole life is suddenly falling apart is this genuine swirl of emotion that Bowyer-Chapman brings out perfectly. It not only creates this emotional connection that keeps viewers into what’s happening in the film, but also helps bring out the themes of hate and passive aggression this film brings out.
The second they arrive, there’s this uneasiness you can feel that stems from more than just a creepy old man constantly staring at their house from afar. Certain dialogue, like their neighbor Tiffany (Chandra West) telling Aaron and Malik that “their kind” isn’t seen much around here and the way that her and her husband Marshal (Lochlyn Munro) go out of their way to not seem homophobic, creates this subtle feeling of being unaccepted that become more and more apparent as the things get worse for Malik. The way that Malik and Aaron are forced against one another and that Malik is gaslighted to believe that he’s having a relapse with the trauma and that he shouldn’t fight for who he is really creates a psychological horror experience that cuts deep and ties to very relevant feelings many minority voices face. Even better is how the film ends with it creating this mind-blowing monologue about the persistence of fear and hate as well as the lives it can destroy. The real intentions that are discovered with everyone surrounding Malik are more horrifying than initially thought and the note that the films leaves you on is truly thought-provoking and touches on systematic oppression in a totally unique way.
Now, while the film does have its message hit in the right way that leaves you thinking long after watching, it doesn’t mean that the film is the most thrilling watch. The scares are few and the film isn’t exactly the most revealing with its narrative when it needs to be. There’re moments when the film tries to inject more trippy and supernatural horrors and it just comes off confusing what the film is really going for. Honestly, there were times I had no idea what the hell was happening and before things became clear, it just made it easier to disconnect to the film and it became kind of boring to watch. It’s also a little frustrating that this film is so confined its mid-90s setting. Having the film take place in 1995 does create some interesting moments with it showcasing wrongful view that interacting with gay people meant that you were going to get AIDS, but it ultimately feels like a plot device used to help Malik seem crazy. With Aaron chastising Malik for installing a security system in a pre-911 neighborhood where everyone keeps their doors unlocked at night and the use of polaroids as definite proof of Malik doing something he doesn’t remember, it’s hard not to feel like the time period is just meant to help the plot and not to dig all that deep into how the LGBT community is viewed during that time.
Spiral definitely succeeds in leaving an impact that leaves you thinking about systemic oppression affecting the LGBT community and beyond as well as showcases a great performance from Bowyer-Chapman that exudes all of the psychological pressure and trauma Malik faces in trying to uncover the sinister plot unfolding around him. However, it’s hard to say that the film succeeds as a whole as its lack of scares and mishandling of its central time period make it an unfortunately dull watch, for the most part, that’s all too easy to check out of.