In a genre predominantly aimed at straight men it’s unsurprising that LGBT horror might be a persona non grata...
...Often relegated to villainous roles in the past, it’s refreshing to see an uptick in representation that puts queer people into a sympathetic context. The downside? Too often these films fall victim to sub-par storytelling, mediocre performances, or both. But even that’s begun to change with films like Thelma and What Keeps You Alive. Writers Colin Minihan (who also wrote and directed What Keeps You Alive) and John Poliquin and director Kurtis David Harder have continued the trend with their strange and unsettling Spiral.
The film, set in 1995, centers on couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) who have just relocated to a small but seemingly affluent burg with Aaron’s teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte) in tow. If an interracial gay couple with a kid moving to a small, white town in the mid-90’s sounds like a recipe for high tension, well, you’re not wrong.
The cringe takes no time setting in when neighbor and professional Maria Bello doppelganger Tiffany (Chandra West) stops by and refers to Malik as Aaron’s gardener and, upon correction, says, “Wow that’s exciting, we don’t have any of you in town.”
From the jump it’s clear that Malik is uncomfortable in his new surroundings and, being perhaps the only person of color for miles in addition to being openly queer, it’s easy to understand why. Factor in a past childhood trauma that centered around his sexuality—a trauma he’s clearly never dealt with or been treated for—and it makes all the sense when he’s the first to notice hookery and spookery afoot.
While Aaron is off to some unmemorable middle-aged-white-guy-with-money job, Kayla zips around on her bike being sassy and landing high school employment, leaving Malik at home to work on writing his book. Work that mostly involves watching VHS recordings of some bespectacled conservative academic talk about the fundamentality of the traditional family unit.
Malik’s unease multiplies when neighbors offer cold wordless stares in return to his greetings and an unknown vandal breaks into their house and spray paints a homophobic pejorative above their mantel. For reasons we may never understand, Malik opts not to tell Aaron about the break-in and instead quietly has an alarm system installed. A system Aaron fails to notice until an elderly neighbor trips it and offers Malik cryptic mumblings and a blank sheet of paper that he warns Malik not to show anyone.
Things get stranger when Malik witnesses a group of his neighbors in the house across the street, hands joined, rocking back and forth in their best impression of the Whos from The Grinch singing around the Christmas tree. Fully creeped, Malik takes his enigmatic piece of paper and begins to pick at the apparent mystery that’s threatening to swallow his sanity, and possibly his family.
Now, in the spirit of full transparency, I’m going to admit I went into Spiral prepared to be underwhelmed. I do this because as a queer person and a life-long lover of all things bizarre and horrific, I have a history of very high hopes for queer horror and have too often been let down. It’s a means of self-preservation.
The truth is that I’m hungry for good queer horror. But there’s a set of tropes and archetypes that I’ve come to expect that make my eyes roll back in my head—see my Midnight Kiss review for details. Thus, my expectations were so with Spiral. Fortunately, I was wrong.
Horror truly is a balancing act and Spiral walks the beam with poise. Does it stick every landing? No, few do, but it boasts enough twists, turns, and genuine chills to keep this old horror hound wringing his hands with anticipation.
JBC (Bowyer-Chapman, for those familiar with him) starts off shaky but steps into his character with a deftness audiences familiar with his turns on Canada’s & RuPaul’s Drag Race might not have expected.
Composer Avery Kentis wrings the absolute most out of his tense minimalistic score that, honestly, chilled me just as often as the story and visuals, punctuating the increasingly unsettling reveals.
Spiral is a film that rewards repeat viewings as it’s littered with Easter eggs of foreshadowing that don’t fully coalesce until later in the film. I found myself revisiting notes, strange images I’d remembered that elicited fresh goosebumps having since gained all the facts. It’s truly been an exercise in restraint writing this, as revealing any more would rob you of all the grisly treasures you have to discover.
Spiral is a lean, nasty piece of work that I would rate amongst the better end in the small pantheon of queer horror films. I look forward to seeing more from everyone involved.
Spiral will be available to stream on Shudder starting September 17th.
By Paul Bauer