In 1995, Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and his husband Aaron (Ari Cohen) move with Aaron’s teenaged daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte) into the small town of Rusty Creek, far from their old home in Chicago. Both men are very much in love and entirely open about being gay, but stay-at-home freelance ghostwriter Malik, still traumatised by a horrific incident of homophobia from 12 years earlier, remains wary of others and, in this new all-hetero, all-white milieu, feels alienated by both his race and his sexuality. The neighbours seem nice enough – Tiffany (Chandra West) comes to welcome them with a potted flower, and her husband Marshal (Lochlyn Munro) is demonstrative about his liberal views – but Malik remains vigilant and suspicious. After all, someone has painted a hateful message on their wall, another neighbour has come with a bizarre Old Man’s Warning™, and Malik spies a number of the locals performing a ritualistic-seeming dance in the apartment across the way. As Malik researches the history of the place, and secretly creates a dossier of all the strange things going on around him, he begins to lose his grip on reality and to slide into paranoia and delusion,
“What’s the word for an Uncle Tom, but for gay people?” Malik asks, fretting over Aaron’s desire that he should act ‘normal’ when over for a drink with their new neighbours. It seems natural to think of Spiral as the gay version of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) – but in fact this is the very definition of an intersectional film, covering America’s history of marginalising and scapegoating otherness in its many and shifting varieties. It is also such a slippery, ambiguous film that the viewer will quickly become as disoriented and confused as Malik himself, faced with a nation’s Caucasian middle-class norms that seem equally self-perpetuating and oppressive whether part of a sinister cabal or of just everyday suburban bourgeois conformity.
Directed by Kurtis David Harder (InControl, 2017) from a screenplay by John Poliquin (Grave Encounters 2, 2012) and Colin Minihan (What Keeps You Alive, 2018, produced by Harder), Spiral is a Polanskian domestic thriller, building slowly from a newcomer’s mild sense of unease to something altogether more hallucinatory and unhinged. The film’s title is made to reflect the central ambiguity of its narrative. On the one hand, it refers to the cycling mental decline of an increasingly isolated and manic Malik, while on the other, the form of a spiral keeps recurring in the film as a visual motif, insidiously suggestive of mind-melting mesmerism, cultic symbology or devil’s mark. Though not quite as all-pervasive as in Higuchinsky’s deranged Uzumaki (2000), the helix image here is just as apocalyptic, whether revelatory of one man’s unravelling or of a community’s evil, hidden in plain sight.
“Difference scares people”, Malik tells Kayla. “In this town, and in this country, it is not safe for people that stand out.” Spiral is an allegory, showing the way that prejudice, whether externalised or internalised, is part of the genetic makeup of America, encoded in the very structure of its nuclear families, each replicating the previous generation. You may come for the visceral chills and trippy descent into madness – the elements that are the blood and guts of genre, here achieved more through confounding edits and insidious camera angles than whizz-bang effects – but you will stay for the damning social commentary, in this vision of a conservative nation that needs as much as fears the other in order to maintain itself. Those that find and read Spiral‘s secret message – a message transmitted across the ages – may emerge better equipped to survive the historical cycle of predatory exploitation, always there in one form or another as part of the community fabric. Or alternatively, that message may just be written into the conspiratorial plan. Either way, Spiral is not just thrilling, but also thought-provoking and urgently cautionary – and though set in the past, it paints a (curved) line that can be traced right through to the present day, and no doubt beyond. This is, to reference another Peele film, about US.
Spiral was seen and reviewed at Arrow Video FrightFest 2019.