Note: content warning for anti-Black racism and homophobia.
Kurtis David Harder’s new film Spiral is an eerie indictment of heteropatriarchal white supremacy that features some disturbing visuals and an outstanding lead performance from Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. The year is 1995 and “traditional family values” are being debated across America. Malik (Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) are a same-sex couple who move to the suburbs to raise 16-year-old Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), Aaron’s biological child from his previous marriage to a woman. As soon as they arrive in their new small-town home, Malik begins to notice odd things about their neighbors. They have a tendency to stare menacingly at his house, watch him with distrust as he jogs through the neighborhood…and hold bizarre cult rituals in their homes. Aaron doesn’t believe Malik when he tries to voice concerns about their new home, though, and Malik becomes increasingly isolated as he tries to uncover the mystery at the sinister heart of the town.
I must confess that a good portion of my notes simply have Aaron’s name preceded by a string of expletives. Aaron is infuriatingly naïve and dismissive of Malik’s concerns; his obliviousness to the dangers that surround him and his mistreatment of Malik are incredibly frustrating. When their new neighbor Tiffany (Chandra West) refers to Malik as Aaron’s gardener, Aaron doesn’t seem to recognize her racism or her homophobia. After she gives them a housewarming gift and leaves, Aaron simply says to the justifiably insulted Malik, “She seems nice!” After a few break-ins, including one in which someone spray paints a homophobic slur on their living room wall, Malik installs a security system. When Aaron finds out about the alarms, he’s furious, insisting that the suburbs are safe and that they shouldn’t even be locking their doors at night. In Aaron’s (slight) defense, Malik doesn’t tell him about the break-ins, so while the idea that they should leave their doors unlocked is still absurd, it’s understandable why Aaron would be confused about what seems to him to be an unnecessary expense.
Still, at every turn Aaron is so confoundingly obtuse that I found myself rolling my eyes whenever he was onscreen. I’m sure this was largely the point: Aaron is white and has spent most of his life in a straight-passing relationship. He’s never had to worry about his safety like Malik has as a Black man who’s been openly gay since adolescence (and who was in fact the victim of a hate crime at a young age). Underscoring the insidiousness of bigotry, Aaron’s own racism and internalized homophobia come out in stark relief when he criticizes Malik for being wary of spending the evening with Tiffany and her creepy husband Marshal (Lochlyn Munro). Aaron accuses Malik of creating drama whenever Aaron wants to spend time with “more normal” people (i.e., straight white people). Malik is once again justifiably upset, but he drops it and they go on to have awkward drinks with their “normal” neighbors, complete with Get Out-style queer-positive platitudes from Tiffany and Marshal.
I initially thought that Spiral was falling prey to the tiresome horror trope of characters not sharing crucial information about the troubling things they’re experiencing. For example, Malik begins to tell Aaron something at a block party about some bizarre cult-like activity he witnessed, but when he gets interrupted he simply drops it and never brings it up again. Normally I would be irritated with a film for presenting a problem that could be solved if the characters would simply talk to one another, but given Aaron’s privileged view of the world and apparent disdain for Malik’s feelings, it’s little surprise that Malik doesn’t even bother telling him about the harassment they’re facing. It’s not the jump scares that make Spiral terrifying…it’s Malik’s total isolation from anyone who understands him or wants to help him.
Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman is fantastic as Malik, perfectly capturing his transformation from a warm and funny guy trying to make things work in a new town to a terrified and desolate man resigned to the fact that he can’t escape hatred no matter how hard he tries. The contrast between two bits of advice he gives Kayla are heartbreaking: at the beginning of the film, he tells her how brave and important it is to live your truth loudly and proudly. Near the end of the film, after he realizes that bigotry will haunt him no matter where he is, he tells her to choose safety no matter what. Hide who you are, don’t speak up, and don’t speak out, he tells Kayla. Be safe, because living outside the norm is too dangerous.
I suspect that Spiral wanted the viewer to consider the possibility that Malik is simply paranoid and that all the bizarre occurrences that he witnesses are just symptoms of his established mental illness. But aside from one hilarious touch at a party gone horribly awry, there’s never any doubt that Malik is right about their new neighbors being up to no good. The unrelenting dread and tension still work, though, because while the viewer knows from the beginning that there’s something very wrong in this town, Spiral makes them wait to find out exactly what kind of evil is lurking underneath the idyllic façade.
In addition to the scares earned from the growing sense of dread and Malik’s lonely, painful desperation are some striking cult images that stick with the viewer. Hooded figures lurk outside windows and people chant and sway in eerily unnatural rituals. Spiral is at its scariest when it uses these representations of the malevolent and violent rejection of the Other that lies at the heart of American society. The end drives that point home even further with an impressive mixture of hope and fatalism. Spiral reminds viewers that hate can hide anywhere, and while the primary targets of that hatred may change, the people in power never do.
Spiral begins streaming on Shudder on September 17.