Spiral Review

After Get Out opened to massive box office and critical acclaim, everyone started to predict the rise of so-called ‘social thrillers’, or movies that used high-concept genre tropes to tell stories that reflect our times. 

The newest attempt at a social thriller is the terrifying and disturbing Spiral from director Kurtis David Harder, which uses a ‘90s setting and a story of a gay couple to tell a story about America today, resulting in a movie that will shake you to your core.

It all begins with a tender scene not often seen in horror movies – two men lovingly sharing a kiss in a car. Harder shoots the scene like it was Casablanca, focusing on the on the emotions at hand before taking the audience’s heart and beating it with a baseball bat as young Malik (Darius Willis) witnesses his partner Liam (Jaron Melanson) get brutally and bloodily beat up by a group of homophobic thugs. It’s a short and effective way to tease what’s to come – a sense of safety and love that will soon be ripped apart by hate and violence.

A decade later in 1995, a grown Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) is moving to a small town with his partner Aaron (Ari Cohen) and Aaron’s daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). When they arrive, they seem to be warmly welcomed by the town, but something’s not quite right. Maybe it’s the fact that the neighbor asks Aaron if his gardener (referring to Malik) is doing work in the yard. Maybe it’s that the same neighbor tells Malik that they “don’t have any of you in town” – though he’s unsure if she meant gay people, black people, or just people who aren’t rude. Maybe it’s the big homophobic slur that someone pains inside Malik and Aaron’s home in red paint. But maybe, just maybe, it’s the fact that a series of murders seems to take place in the same town every ten years.

This movie is Bowyer-Chapman’s awards-reel, and if there was any justice in this world and genre movies got regular awards attention, he would be racking best actor awards by the end of the year. He was criminally under-utilized in UnReal, but here he is able to take the spotlight and run with it. Bowyer-Chapman’s Malik devours every scene he’s in (which is almost every scene in the film) with a nuanced and painfully real performance that would work great in a drama even without the supernatural elements added in. And yes, there seems to be something supernatural going on in this movie, or at least that’s what Malik thinks, as he keeps seeing his neighbors appear and disappear while doing some strange ritualistic dances, discovers a pile of dead and bloody racoons in his attic, and a Samara/Sadako-like entity seems to haunt him.

Of course, no one believes Malik, since he’s still suffering from PTSD from witnessing the attack a decade earlier. Most of the film becomes a mix of Get Out’s commentary on small town America and the fear of being different from the rest, and Jacob’s Ladder mind-twisting paranoia. Whether Malik is right or not is a discussion for another, more in-depth article, but let’s just say there’s a reason Hereditary is name-dropped in this piece, as dark robes and hooded figures start to appear in the town. But are they real or just a projection of Malik’s paranoia?

Like the best horror movies (and the Jordan Peele movie that clearly influences this one), Spiral uses genre tropes and its past setting to comment on modern day. The film doesn’t need to show acts of homophobic violence or direct confrontations – though they do show that – to portray the dangers and fears felt by the LGBTQ community feels all the time, but the film extends the sentiment to include everyone who falls outside the ‘norm’ and how difficult it is to be different. “In this town, and this country, it is not safe for people that stand out” is said in the movie and it carries all of the necessary emotional weight.

Spiral does an awful lot with its not-huge budget. The cinematography is moody and dark, using framing and lighting to make the night-time scenes appear nightmarish and the day-time scenes dream-like to keep the audience guessing what exactly is and isn’t real. The film is not going for a “fun time at the movies” vibe, but a painfully real and constantly dread-filled experience that slowly creeps up on you before shaking you to your core with fantastically timed scares.

Through a phenomenal performance, chilling atmosphere and a terrific script, Spiral builds an experience that is as terrifying as it is depressingly timely.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Rafael Motamayor (@RafaelMotamayor) is a recovering-cinephile and freelance writer from Venezuela currently based in Norway. He likes writing about horror despite being the most scary-cat person he knows.