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Spiral Review: Social Horror with Great Leading Turn

Spiral is a reasonably effective social horror film that focuses on how same-sex couples can be othered by their neighbors.

Spiral tells the story of a mid-90s same sex couple who departs the Big City for the suburbs with their daughter. As the film’s release on streaming service Shudder surely alerts, a perfect bucolic lifestyle does not await them.  More invested in building a foreboding tone than actual scares, Spiral makes for an unsettling sit.

It is difficult to avoid the parallels to Get Out when watching Spiral.  Both deal with outsiders entering hierarchical white communities only to be exposed to the dark underbellies of those groups. Spiral shifts the social horror lens to the gay experience.  Director Kurtis David Harder (Summerland)’s film espouses a clear viewpoint on the way these communities can other outsiders, such as a same sex couple.  The point is not subtle, especially in the film’s final act, but it is effective and emotional.  The film benefits from Harder’s calm, measured direction.  The editing is restrained and the performers are given space to act.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman (UnReal) is largely effective in the leading role as Malik.  Burdened with traumas from his past, Bowyer-Chapman does a nice job of threading the needle of simmering hysteria and fully realized terror. Is he imagining slights from his neighbors or is something more nefarious at play? I suspect you can guess.  Critically, he brings a sense of warmth to his relationships with his partner, an underused Ari Cohen (It), and his teen daughter.  Even when events, ahem, spiral to greater extreme, Bowyer-Chapman remains a compelling, charismatic presence.

Spiral (Shudder)

Bowyer-Chapman’s performance helps paper over some of the film’s weaker plotting elements.  For example, he’s a writer tasked with ghostwriting the autobiography of a homophobic preacher-type but does not appear to have even done the barest bones research into his subject before undertaking the project. Bowyer-Chapman sells the strain of listening to the man’s homophobic screeds successfully, but it is difficult for me to imagine any publisher would have paired this writer and this subject.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the scares are lacking.  Even when the action ratchets up, the tension remains fairly mild.  We have our typical horror mixture of cults and vaguely supernatural figures and a few splashes of gore.  The film’s most frightening scene isn’t really from the horror genre at all: Malik returns home to find a slur painted on his family room wall.  He makes the choice to paint over the graffiti and put on a happy face for his family – it’s a fascinating, very human dilemma that the film would have done well to spend more time ruminating.

Spiral ends on a coda that jumps forward about a decade.  And while it would be easy to pick apart the goofy plotting on the film’s denouement, I must admit that I felt moved by it.  Much like the graffiti scene, Harder is a more effective director when he wears his emotions on his sleeve.

Spiral is now available exclusively on AMC’s Shudder.

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