Prejudice manifests in every corner in America, but it’s the small corners of the country that are able to harbor their bigoted transgressions. These are the places that are resistant to much-needed change. They feel threatened by any disruption to the outdated social order of “traditional family values” and thrive on tearing it down. In “Spiral,” the little town of Rusty Creek serves as a special kind of evil, one whose quietly sinister presence provides many ominous chills.
Taking place in 1995, “Spiral” follows same-sex couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) as they make themselves at home in the secluded town, looking to start life anew. Aaron seems to adjust just fine while Malik remains somewhat apprehensive. Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), Aaron’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage, shares some resentment toward her father for the sudden move and finds herself befriending a local boy (Ty Wood). Unbeknownst to the new family, their presence carries more connotations than they initially thought, causing Malik to travel down the rabbit hole of his new environment and uncover a disturbing truth.
I had no idea what to expect of this one. Since its FrightFest premiere last year, I’ve seen “Spiral” being compared to “Get Out” in regard to a community-wide threat toward a marginalized protagonist. Director Kurtis David Harder’s film works aptly well as a companion piece. It takes a slow-burn approach with its developments. You’re keenly aware that something is amiss; there’s no doubting that. It’s all a matter of how it’s framed to Malik and whether or not we can believe what we’re seeing.
Despite how wonderful a couple they appear to be, I particularly loved how writers Colin Minihan and John Poliquin demonstrate just how different Malik and Aaron see the same thing. One spouse not believing the other when strange phenomenons start to happen is already a familiar horror trope, yet I don’t think I’ve seen it presented like this. Malik has the distinction of inhabiting the fearful distrust of the world not only as a gay man, but also as a Black gay man, while the well-meaning (and very white) Aaron is prone to letting things slide a little too easily. He thinks nothing of it when his new neighbor says, “We don’t have any of you in town,” after they’ve indicated they’re partners.
A traumatic instance of violent homophobia in his youth, seen through triggered flashes, prompts Malik to be extra cautious of his surroundings. Aaron, only briefly out, still views Malik’s apprehensions through the prism of his white privilege. In this way, despite their bond, Malik is forced to confront some disturbing revelations alone.
Jennifer Laporte is really great, and Ari Cohen displays some wonderful moments of naiveté, but “Spiral” through and through belongs to Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. He carries the weight of this movie on his shoulders with a magnificent, emotional performance layered with a genuine vulnerability. There’s an excellent scene where Malik comes home to a vicious slur spray painted on his living room wall. This is the first real sign where any notion of a safe life in Rusty Creek is shattered. There’s a fear in his eyes as he can’t bring himself to tell his partner, immediately painting over it. But as the film unravels, it ensures that no amount of paint or repression can cover up the terrible truth bubbling to the surface.
As “Spiral” unravels the big secret at the heart of Rusty Creek, however, I didn’t feel the personal impact of this community. Next-door neighbors Marshal (Lochlyn Munro) and Tiffany (Chandra West), offering surface-level hospitality, are about the only people that the couple interacts with. “Spiral” doesn’t form much of a relationship between Malik and the community so much as it develops a lingering paranoia about what threat they may pose. The creepiness of Rusty Creek lies in its deeply relevant allegorical meaning. Well, there’s also the totally-not-creepy dance ritual taking place late at night next door. That would definitely raise some eyebrows. I’m sure it’s nothing.
Speaking from a cis straight male perspective, I believe you’d be doing yourself a favor to read reviews from prominent LGBTQ critics like Terry Mesnard (Gayly Dreadful) and Jourdain Searles (Autostraddle) to receive a more nuanced reading on the film’s underlying terrors. Bolstered by an engrossing performance from Bowyer-Chapman, “Spiral” is a distressing slow burn that’ll leave you thinking about your own complicity in continuing the discriminatory cycle we’ve allowed to keep spinning.
Matt graduated from Keene State College in 2017 with a Bachelor’s in Critical Film Studies. A few of his favorite films include “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Army of Darkness,” “Before Sunrise” and “Certain Women.” Having already contributed to Bloody Disgusting, ELF Magazine and The Simple Cinephile, Matt aspires to expand and continue writing with various outlets. If there’s any chance to talk about horror films and/or Twin Peaks, he’ll very much jump at the opportunity.