Very early in, it’s perceivably clear that Spiral is a story that a large portion of the audience will not appreciate. It might even elude them for there are moments where the terror comes off as uneventful or too tepid to go full third base unless you properly understand what it is that the central character is experiencing. Not that these viewers won’t be able to enjoy the film, only that they might look at the horror unfolding in Spiral and think nothing of it.
This difference in interpretation can be seen in the limited reviews for this film. Early discussions about Spiral from when it was released on Shudder in September, showed almost no middle ground between final verdicts. Certain groups of people which included women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQA+ community thought it was downright terrifying while others felt underwhelmed by what was presented.
Spiral confirms two things for me. One, ALL horror movie husbands are useless and two, nothing good ever happens in the suburbs. A perfectly tidy neighborhood filled with polished passive-aggressive white people that smell like snobs. Often unintnetional snobs but snobs nonetheless. That’s the first problem the characters make in Spiral. They move to the freaking suburbs.
Same-sex couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) move to a nice small city in the suburbs with Aaron’s daughter from a previous marriage, Kayla, your typical angsty teen. There is no big reason behind this move other than getting out of the noisy city. It’s quiet and supposedly, safe, but it doesn’t take long before weird things start happening because anyone who has ever seen a movie knows that in the suburbs, you’re neighbors are always up to no good.
On their first day there, Malik starts having problems with some of the neighbors as they appear rude in unduly polite ways. Then one day he comes home to find the slur “F****ts” written on their wall, and just like that, their peaceful, and shockingly spacious home becomes the setting for Malik’s worst nightmares. Things only get stranger when he finds several copies of a book with a spiral logo in the neighboring houses and when someone gives him a post-it note secretly numbered with dates. They’ve become targets in something sinister. Unfortunately, he’s the only one aware of these events. Aaron has no idea and refuses to take any of it seriously.
Spiral starts with a brief flashback of a hate crime in which a teenaged Malik and his boyfriend (not Aaron) are attacked by a group of homophobes. The memory appears repeatedly throughout the film and is the heart of Malik’s growing paranoia. He’s living in fear, waiting for the next attack, unraveling at the seams much to the confusion of the completely at ease Aaron. He doesn’t understand why his husband is so upset, or so afraid. The two analyze their surroundings in very different ways as Aaron is a seemingly well-off, middle-aged white man that has likely never experienced more than a few hateful words regarding his sexual orientation while Malik is a black man who has already suffered hate-induced violence.
Aaron doesn’t have a lot to do in the film. He’s absent for a large portion of it, and when he is present, it’s only to ask Malik why he can’t just get over his anxieties and go make friends with the neighbors. If only anxiety and PSTD were that easy to cure buddy.
At one point, he even makes the comment, “You know what people do in the suburbs?” he asks “they leave their doors unlocked.” Which is honestly one of the dumbest things I’ve ever heard. This film is not set in the 50s when the suburbs were at peak power. Spiral is set in 1995, a time when people should have been most definitely locking their doors! Anyone who trusts their community enough to sleep with the door unlocked is someone who has likely lived a sheltered existence, which I’m sure is exactly what the film is trying to say about Aaron. Being, not only a black man but also a gay man, Malik feels the pressure of conforming to “acceptable” society that Aaron is blind to.
Spiral isn’t all social commentary though. There is something going on in town. What may or may not be a cult is living next door and they’ve got their eyes set on Malik, or do they? For the first half, Spiral attempts its hand at being a psychological thriller that wants you to question Malik’s sanity. The biggest problem with that is the film immediately gives away the answer. As Malik is slowly losing his marbles, there are multiple shots of people in hoods watching the house from the outside.
As good as Spiral is, if it had kept the question of insanity more prominent I feel that it would have resulted in a more impactful finale. It gives away part of the mystery a bit too soon. Knowing early on that Malik is right and that the neighbors are up to something, changes the viewing experience. It slowly turns from a study of fear, trauma, paranoia, and prejudices into a guessing game about the neighbors. All those themes remain strong though, coming back big in the end.
Spiral is Get Out meets IT, with an end that pulls a Sinister. (Sorry, I just love name dropping movies). It is brutally honest when it holds up that mirror to the audience, a rigid atmosphere that keeps you tense and a slow buildup of poking at cultural prejudices like poking at a water balloon. Soon everything’s gonna pop. There are two monsters in this film, the actual villains and the fear they exploit. Those who’ve targeted Malik and his family have no personal issues with either of them, but they need to use human nature to their advantage, and fear is a part of human nature. Where there is prejudice, they can thrive.
Spiral is streaming now on Shudder.(3.5 / 5)
All photos are property of Hadron Films and Digital Interference Productions