Horror movies allows filmmakers to express repressed emotions, behaviours and ideas. It's a genre that thrives on the taboo and unspoken truths of real life. Perhaps that is why it has resonated with LGBTQ audiences - in moments where expressing or living a LGBTQ identity is unavailable or impossible, horror films like Kurtis David Harder's 'Spiral' can offer an introspective viewpoint or be a safe method of escapism.
When it comes to queer themes, the genre is ripe for exploring things such as possession, body transformation, fear of the other, uncontrollable desire, and hidden identities. They can slink into subtext, splash blood, throw shade, relish in camp, and chill spines. They can offer happy endings and harrowing ones.That being said, the genre's tackling of the issues of repression and so on are far from perfect (think of the wild transphobia of 'Insidious 2'), but flaws can often help boost conversations about LGBTQ issues in a productive way.
It's 1995, and an interracial same-sex couple, ghost writer Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, 'Dirty Grandpa') and the older, calmer Aaron (Ari Cohen, 'It Chapter 2') move to a small town so they can enjoy a better quality of life and raise their 16-year-old daughter (Jennifer Laporte). When Malik receives a vague warning from an elderly home invader and sees the folks next door throwing a very peculiar party, he begins to realise that everything isn't as it seems in their picturesque neighbourhood.
As the couple are informed by their friendly new neighbours, Marshall (Lochlyn Munro, 'The Predator') and Tiffany (Chandra West, 'Z'), nothing much changes in the town, so the new arrivals are of keen interest to the long-time residents. Malik - a queer black man in a closely-knit, mostly white, straighty-one-eighty town - begins to feel increasingly paranoid. Through flashbacks, we learn that Malik was the victim of a homophobic attack as a teenager. As an adult, he tries to cover his vulnerabilities with a loud and brassy persona that eventually puts him at odds with his partner's more placating demeanour. "What's the word for an Uncle Tom, but for gay people?" asks Malik, exasperated, as Aaron continues to humour the locals.
Although the film touches upon the prejudices and pressures that people in a same-sex couple have to endure, Malik and Aaron themselves are not defined by their sexuality. Much the same as 'What Keeps You Alive', a recent thriller about a lesbian couple uncovering secrets on their honeymoon, Malik and Aaron are characters who happen to be gay, but aren't defined by it. The key thing is that they are outsiders who don't conform to the standards of the community.
Little by little, inconsistencies begin piling up. At first, we're unsure whether what's going on is the product of Malik's lapses in memory, infrequent blackouts and embattled mental health. This is where 'Spiral' is at its most effective, delivering ambiguity and doubt.
Eventually David Harder, along with screenwriters Colin Minihan ('What Keeps You Alive', 'It Stains the Sands Red') and John Poliquin ('Grave Encounters') introduce some video tape-sharing ghosts, loud noises, creeping goat-headed shadows and other well-worn tropes into the equation. Unfortunately, this is when 'Spiral' begins to tread some shaky ground into Wan-inspired loud noises horror territory.
Little inconsistencies keep piling up and, at first, we're unsure whether what's going on is the product of Malik's imagination. This is where 'Spiral' is at its most effective, delivering ambiguity and doubt.
'The Stepford Wives' was a 1975 would-be shocker in which the men of a small town instigate a plan to alter their wives' behaviour, making them (quite against their will) endlessly gentle, understanding, and husband-friendly. Eventually, a couple of free-spirited women start catching on to exactly what's happening in the cozy community of Stepford, and then you spend the rest of the movie waiting for it to end. Like 'The Stepford Wives', 'Disturbing Behaviour' and 'Get Out' before it, 'Spiral' looks at the façade of the utopia of small-town America, and how is might be okay to be a little cautious when you don't fit in. The closing moments of the film, which occur after a significant time jump, hints at the politics of modern America and the type of people who are targeted for vilification. It's thought-provoking, yet 'Spiral' follows the story beats of those afore-mentioned films so closely that it loses some freshness.
As the central character, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman essays an impressive transformation from a proudly black, gay man into someone who feels betrayed by his partner, marginalised by the community, and is driven to the brink of sanity by the mystery he digs up. It's a shame that Jennifer Laporte and Ari Cohen don't get a few more moments to flesh out their own characters. It would have been interesting to see more of their experiences in the town and encounters with the locals.
Bradley Stuckel's cinematography captures the frosty isolation of the location, echoing the loneliness that Malik is experiencing as we watch him jogging down clean, quiet streets, the locals gawping at him from the sidewalks. The bulk of the film unfolds in the new house, trapping Malik and the audience in a series of small rooms. Working in unison with the visuals is Avery Kentis' emotional arrangement of mournful synth and sombre guitars.
An atmospheric, slow-burn thriller that channels some very current themes, 'Spiral' leans a little too heavily on both its cinematic influences and cheap "boo" scares. But the strong craftsmanship in front of and behind the camera keep the journey interesting, even if it doesn't take a genius to see how all of this will end. When the film hits third gear and lurches forward, it does so with such queasy speed that by the time the audience finally regains its balance, we've reached the end of the story.