Streaming on Shudder: Spiral (2020) - Reviewed

photo courtesy Shudder

“Choosing to live your life loud and proud is about the bravest thing in this world.” 

These are the words of wisdom that Malik, the protagonist of the Shudder exclusive film Spiral, says to his daughter.  They are words meant to inspire his daughter to be herself and show pride for her queer fathers.  Unfortunately, the film itself follows none of this advice, and instead shyly presents itself to the audience.

The setup for the film is the classic “family moves to a new neighborhood and there’s something not quite right with the neighbors” premise.  Set in 1995, the aspiring writer Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and his husband Aaron (Ari Cohen) escape the city and move to a small town, where they hope to raise their teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer LaPorte) peacefully.  After meeting a few neighbors who seem taken aback by their gay relationship, Malik begins to have mysterious experiences.  One night, he witnesses a strange, ceremonial gathering next door, and it only gets weirder from there on out.  Are these bizarre happenings all in Malik’s paranoid head, or is something actually amiss with their new town?

The answer to that question is one of the few things Spiral ultimately does right.  Taking some cues from horror films like Get Out and Rosemary’s Baby, it manages to toy with the audience’s assumptions enough to keep people guessing.  The problem with it is that even in its most dire moments, the film is a banal retreading of a story that other filmmakers have tackled with more aplomb.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman does a fine job as Malik, but many other cast members are painted in broad brush strokes.  Jennifer LaPorte plays the eye-rolling teenage goth girl:  a hackneyed stereotype in films featuring teenagers at this point.  Ari Cohen is largely forgettable as Malik’s husband, and many of the neighbors’ portrayals are disinteresting.  This appears to be less the fault of the actors and more the consequence of a weak script and poor direction from Kurtis David Harder.

With the possible exception of several moments near the end, the scares in the film are underwhelming.  This is more of a film that feeds off of minor apprehensions than actual jump scares.  When done well, slow-burn horror films work brilliantly, but thanks to the boring characters and lack of genuine suspense the majority of the time, it adds up to a cold, disengaged experience.

While not entirely missing the mark, Spiral is a timid examination of small-town prejudices and a writer questioning his sanity.  Had it made braver choices and been more “loud and proud,” as Malik says, it would’ve worked far better.  

-Andrea Riley