Released: 17th September
Seen: 20th September
When it comes to queer characters as the leads in horror films, I have to admit I can’t come up with many. Nightmare on Elm Street 2 may have put all the gayness into the subtext but it was still there, genuinely groundbreaking for that time (and the subject of a fascinating documentary that I may have reviewed a while ago). Hellbent was a slasher film that made the bold choice to have all the victims and even the main villain be gay men in West Hollywood. Cursed had a gay supporting character, Scream 4 had one character who claimed they were gay (It might’ve been an attempt to not get stabbed, which didn’t work) and that’s where I run out of films (I know there’s more, damned if I can name them). They’re certainly never really pushed by any big companies or made mainstream, so for Shudder to make a horror movie about a gay couple and link the story explicitly to the gay experience is pretty awesome and the film is… good.
Spiral, set in 1995, follows Malik (Jeffrey-Bowyer Chapman), his partner Aaron (Ari Cohen) and Aaron’s daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte) as they move into a new suburb. At first, everything seems to be going well… until things start seeming a little off, like the neighbours holding a weird ritualistic dance party in the middle of the night or someone breaking into their house to write “Faggot” above the fireplace, little things that Aaron somehow doesn’t notice but Malik does. Just what is going on in this sleepy little town and how badly will it end for our main characters (Spoilers, it’s a horror movie… so it will end badly).
I’ve seen some people compare Spiral to Get Out and, on the surface, I agree. It follows a lot of the same beats, weird goings-on that’re unexplainable, a somehow decades-long history of weird shit going on in this town, unsubtle reminders that even well-meaning liberals can say some hurtful things without meaning to and of course the black partner of our main couple noticing immediately and the white one oblivious to all the weirdness going on. Except, and I hate to spoil a twist from Get Out but it’s three years old and if you haven’t watched it by now then you don’t care about the twist, the white partner in Get Out was in on the weirdness that was happening… that’s not the case in Spiral which makes the character just ignorant and stupid.
Spiral’s big problem is that both the main gay characters have very different reactions to how things are going on here and that just doesn’t ring true. Now, I get what they were going for, that the black fem queer character who has had a history of witnessing violence against gay people would be more fine-tuned to homophobia than his white partner who used to be married to a woman… which is bullshit cos this film is set in 95, every gay person at that time could spot homophobia from a mile away cos they were still dealing with the AIDS crisis and were kind of used to it. Aaron somehow not catching on that something weird was going on pulled me right out of a lot of this. Throw on top of that that there’s the stuff that’s physically painted on the inside of the house that Aaron paid for and lives in and he never sees it… again, he’s not in on what’s going on, he’s a potential victim and his cluelessness is brushed aside so we can focus on Malik.
This focus on Malik does give Jeffrey-Bowyer Chapman a lot to work with and he does a good job in selling the material he’s been given. Everyone else is kind of just passable and never really rises above that. It makes it hard to care when everything goes to hell because I only really care about one of the main characters, the other one is unknowable and therefore I don’t really care and as for the daughter… I mean, she’s there as part of the film but it’s not exactly engaging.
It’s an incredibly slow burn movie, to the point that it feels like it’s trying to wake its audience up by throwing a jumpscare out to remind you to stick around. It builds the tension by having shit pop up randomly where it makes no sense, suggesting that Malik is losing his mind throughout the entire movie. In thinking over this film I tend to think about another recent horror film that was a slow burn where weird things kept happening and it built to a pretty brutal climax… Hereditary. Again, this film shares a lot with that film but what makes Hereditary endlessly watchable is that brilliant lead performance by Toni Collette that probably should’ve put an Oscar on her shelf and we don’t have one of those performances here. We don’t have something to pull us in and make us feel the terror that the characters are going through.
Spiral is certainly an interesting watch, if nothing else because it’s a film with unapologetically queer characters in a genre that tends to not let those people be more than the fun sidekick if they even get in the film at all. It has a few good moments and some interesting cinematography but at the end of the day it’s ticking off the checklist that one might expect for a gay version of Get Out without really going all the way. It’s getting there though, and that’s a good start.