If you are seeking an extremely form-fitting small town horror movie, Spiral is that feature. Bonus points are awarded in this case for also being a movie putting gay men and LGBTQIA+ policy making it the forefront of its explorations. In some ways, Spiral has a great deal to say, but it is often lost in heavy-handed delivery that becomes peripheral to its main straight-and-narrow Horror plot.
Conversely, this is also what makes it an enjoyable film to watch: our community deserves to be included in movies that are just straight up scary. And we deserve to be included in a way that is not exploitative or makes us the victim for having a victim’s sake. We need more queer horror that places queerness both in historical context, making the horror a less fantastical exercise, and more a product of the era it is depicting.
Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) are a couple moving away from Chicago with their teen daughter, Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), to start a quieter life in a small town. Aaron’s job is unknown, but Malik is a freelance writer, ghostwriting the book of an advocate for gay conversion therapy. Naturally, there is more to the idyllic and painfully cheerful town than meets the eye.
The plot first seems to be to break the couple’s trust, then hints lightly at recruiting one of the family members, and then shifts into something else altogether. Malik struggles with trauma, Kayla struggles with abandonment by one of her parents and being uprooted from her home, and Aaron must struggle with trying to keep things together but we see very little of his journey. Instead, we focus on Malik’s brushes with possibly mental breaks and suspected supernatural happenings.
The particulars of what is going on in the town remain hazy. This is very much on purpose, but at times it becomes frustrating to follow. The relationships between its central couple is unclear as well: they have clearly known each other for a lengthy amount of time, but how long have they been dating, how long have they been committed and living together. It’s also apparent that they have not been raising Kayla together for her entire life, but again we are left with no impressions regarding exactly what their co-parenting has been up to this point.
The film is really about Malik. It’s about what happened to him in the past, about his impressions of the town, and the ultimate stress comes from his struggles to save his family from a slowly discovered fate. But any of the questions surrounding that family’s life before coming to this town would have made it more worth watching. Parts are, I hesitate to say it, a slog.
Never before have I see a movie that saves itself in the last 5 minutes as effectively as Spiral does. It suffers from too many motifs and not enough narrative. While the film keeps it an easy hour and a half, it introduces a variety of plot points that are quickly brushed over and fails to create a sense of dread or the mystery it seeks in the final minutes.
It’s always a risk to present a false narrative when your product’s primary distribution is through streaming: after all, it is all too easy to simply shut it off. I cannot promise the conclusion was worth reliving the trauma we see repeated over and over in Spiral, but there’s something about the stress induced by assuming you know the ending that makes the many unresolved questions still feel satisfying.
After this, watch: The Pact (2012), Knives and Skin (2019), The Wicker Man (1973)