Kurtis David Harder's Spiral received its world premiere at last year's FrightFest London and finally, after what seems like a forever, arrives on our home screens via Shudder. It's a film that will inevitably draw parallels between the work of Jordan Peele and Ari Aster, but this is a completely different beast, mixing real-world anxieties and potent social commentary with classic genre thrills.
The story follows Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) who moves into a small town with his husband Aaron (Ari Cohen) and Aaron's teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). The town is overwhelmingly white and straight, but their neighbours Marshal (Lochlyn Munro) and Tiffany (Chandra West) seem friendly enough and their son Tyler takes a liking to Kayla. Malik becomes suspicious of his neighbours after witnessing strange events and uncovering the neighbourhood's disturbing past, but is it all in his head?
While Spiral doesn't necessarily offer any genuine surprises – fans of Get Out will immediately recognise Marshal and Tiffany's performative liberalness as a sign of danger – but it does navigate Malik's growing paranoia and feelings of otherness with relative grace and authenticity. Spiral feels universal in its themes, but it also specifically and accurately portrays prejudice in small towns in the 90s. Perhaps the film's most upsetting aspect is just how little has changed in terms of prejudice and the horrors that come with it.
Harder creates disturbing and effective images that utilise both gore and universally recognised signs of hate and bigotry. The real horror here is the constant homophobia experienced by Malik, as is evident when he discovers a hate word painted on his wall, an event he wants to hide from his family. Malik grows more and more unstable and disoriented from reality, something Harder uses to great effect and seeing Malik visibly scared but never hysterical raises the stakes and brings the audience's emotions effectively into the experience.
Bowyer-Chapman carries the entire film on his shoulders; ultimately, this is Malik's story. As seen in the opening scene and glimpsed throughout the film, Malik carries with him unspeakable trauma, something he is unable to leave behind. Spiral is mostly about the cyclical, never-ending nature of hate and violence. The film's ending suggests that while it may be difficult to break, there is always hope.
Malik makes for an engaging and interesting main character, someone who is marginalised in every single way by being gay, black, and struggling with their mental health. Bowyer-Chapman gracefully navigates his character with charisma, showing off Malik's inner strength but also allowing him to be fragile and desperate. Malik isn't a stereotype and the character is never defined by their race or sexuality, a welcome change in a genre that is still prone to only portraying the experiences of white, straight people.
While the film grows more and more bonkers, Bowyer-Chapman keeps the film nicely grounded. Cohen is equally great, but ultimately, pushed to the side-lines. Spiral threatens to succumb to boring, old genre tropes but the basic themes of shared trauma and suffering are interesting enough to keep your attention. While films have often been criticised for limiting LGBTQ+ stories to stories of trauma and suffering, Spiral subverts this by never abusing the body of its gay black protagonist.
While trauma is a fundamental part of Spiral's narrative and themes, it feels inclusive and real. It shows the terrifying and devastating consequences of fear and uncertainty. Earlier in the film, Malik tells Kayla to live her life as she pleases, loud and proud, but later goes back on this, stating it is dangerous and not worth it. It's a deeply upsetting change of heart for Malik and one of the most memorable scenes in the film. It's a shame the film never returns to this statement, seemingly leaving this as its final message about identity and living your life.
While Spiral doesn't really offer any scares, it's a tense and affecting horror-thriller with a star-making turn from Bowyer-Chapman. It's a film that'll stick with you long after the credits have rolled and offers much to chew on. Harder laments himself as a talent to watch, having already acted as a producer on a number of great genre films such as Still/Born and Harpoon. Spiral is, without a doubt, one of the most memorable films of 2020.
Dir: Kurtis David Harder
Cast: Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Aaron Cohen, Lochlyn Munro, Jennifer Laporte, Chandra West
Prd: Kurtis David Harder, Chris Ball, Colin Minihan, John Poliquin
DOP: Bradley Stuckel
Music: Avery Kentis
Run time: 87 min
Spiral streams on Shudder from September 17.