The horror genre is riddled with characters that look to be losing the plot to outsiders, but are in fact jeopardising their sanity to uncover the darker truth: pod people, devil worshippers, gremlins flying economy. Seeing heroes unravel to escape an evil threat has always made for a fun and frightening watch – it just helps if whatever they’re trying to get out of hasn’t been done before. Spiral has a precise aim to do just that, but there are some tropes it either can’t shake off or doesn’t even try to.
Kurtis David Harder’s latest addition to Shudder is a time capsule wrapped in terror which makes some of Spiral‘s moments all the more unsettling. The year is 1995 and starts like so many neighbourhood nightmares do, (but focusing on characters that rarely visit them) the film sees gay couple Malik and Aaron (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman and Ari Cohen) move into their new home along with their daughter Kayla. The hope for an idyllic fresh start soon starts to crack though, when Malik questions the suburban smiles and nightly activities the locals are involved in, sparking memories of his tragic past and a fear of an unknown threat just beyond the driveway.
Taking a similar route that Get Out did along with Rosemary’s Baby and even The Wicker Man, Spiral highlights and explores a social minority’s perspective that is so rarely seen in horror, to ultimately increase the fear factor when it begins to kick in. It’s a viewpoint carefully handled to start with by both Harder, and his core cast, specifically Bowyer-Chapman as the lead. Having a family that feels like a believable one, friction and all, provides an added layer of realism and relatability, fortifying the understandable anxieties that come with a same-sex couple holding up in suburbia where neighbours describe them as an ‘exciting’ addition to a community that feels in the middle of nowhere.
Cinematographer Bradley Stuckel helps provide a stark, and cold perspective of this area that feels so detached and objective, highlighting the isolation and the frustrating incidents the family have to endure. It’s in the awkward post-dinner party conversations assuring how ‘welcome’ they are, or Kayla being ostracised because kids think she’ll have AIDS. It’s an uncomfortable but essential fit for the era the film’s in, but as real-life horrors soon teeter into the unnatural, Spiral starts to lose its grip on both, and the film suffers for it.
Taking the brunt of these terrors both in the societal and the surreal is Bowyer-Chapman as Malik, who maintains a solid performance for a character falling apart. This new Black gay addition to the neighbourhood is a product of paranoia and past pain, and he handles both incredibly well, making him a talent you hope to see more of. Wracking his brain over a CRT monitor and dial-up internet to find the history of the town and the secrets it holds, there’s an indisputable charm and presence he carries throughout that keeps you invested. However, he’s a highlight that’s overshadowed by some questionable story beats, and ones that feel all-too-familiar. Peele’s Oscar-winning horror is a prominent shadow hanging over Spiral, and as a result, some of its plot points get seen far too early to make any significant impact.
These are only made even more noticeable thanks to key characters getting full-on horror movie brain; making all the wrong decisions, or avoiding conversations that would ensure Malik’s sanity just because the story doesn’t want them to. As a result, his mental decline is a trip you can read like a map and fails to hit its final stop in a way that’s intended, softening the valid point that Spiral is trying to make, but struggling to execute.
There are clear signs of promise in both the premise and the parties involved here. Had more time been spent on Malik’s journey into madness and an effort to avoid the turn-ins that many had done before, this could’ve been something special. Harder has a lot to say, and using a queer couple at the centre of a horror to do so is to be commended. It allows Spiral to explore fears that certain audience members wouldn’t have considered and should, while others will be all too familiar with – it’s just too afraid to go the full distance.