Directed by Kurtis David Harder.
Screenplay by Colin Minihan & John Poliquin.
Starring Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Ari Cohen, Jennifer Laporte, Lochlyn Munro, Chandra West, Ty Wood, Thomas Elms, Paul McGaffey, David LeReaney, & Darius Willis.
Hadron Films / Digital Interference Productions
Not Rated / 90 minutes
Horror / Thriller
The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!!! Watch the film before reading—
lest ye be spoiled.
Kurtis David Harder has already directed a couple feature films, and produced several great ones like What Keeps You Alive, Harpoon, and Z. His teaming with Colin Minihan (writer-director of What Keeps You Alive/writer of Z) and John Poliquin (directed Grave Encounters 2) has resulted in his best work to date. Spiral comes along at a time when queer horror is loud, proud, and becoming a significant subgenre that’s finally being given the recognition it deserves.
The film’s screenplay follows Aaron (Ari Cohen) and Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman), a gay couple raising Aaron’s teen daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). They’re moving to a small town in hopes of giving Kayla the best environment possible. What appears at first like an idyllic little neighbourhood in a town where people seem eager to accept the couple soon begins to feel strange to Malik. Only problem is that maybe it’s just Malik, maybe his traumatic past is infringing upon the present.
If not, then something dangerous could very well be going on in that town.
Apart from a shocker near the end the horror in Spiral is mainly psychological. The genius of the film is how it teeters on a thin line between reality and madness. We question whether what Malik is seeing is real, or if it’s an incident from his youth coming back to haunt him. Though this won’t be the same for all viewers. Some Black viewers will inherently trust Malik’s perspective while white audiences may not, because Black people— especially Black queer people— will recognise the anxieties and fears Malik feels in a community where he’s seen as Other. This is a great element to the screenplay, through which Minihan and Poliquin explore how white privilege extends to the queer community. A tense, terrifying ride, as well as a compelling look at intersectional queer fear(s) via a horror lens.Before anything overtly unsettling happens to Malik there are already signs the town isn’t safe for queers. We see “the traditional family” is everything in this little white patriotic town. When Tiffany (Chandra West) drops by to welcome Aaron and Malik to the neighbourhood she mistakes Malik for the gardener, automatically marking him as ‘the help’ and making clear it’s quite a white place. When she finds out they’re a gay couple she remarks: “We don‘t have any of you in town.” Her husband Marshal (Lochlyn Munro) is slightly less awkward, yet his mention of a “long bloodline” that goes back to the “blue coats“— a reference to Union soldiers during the American Civil War— feels like an uncanny parallel to the empty liberal gestures of the white dad from Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
Racial issues don’t stop at the queer community. It isn’t only straight people who can be racist, intentionally or by accident through sheer ignorance. We see this depicted in the relationship between Aaron and Malik. In spite of both being queer, the two men have decidedly different subjective experiences being queer; Malik is a Black man, Aaron is white. Malik sees things that Aaron doesn’t simply by virtue of race, plus the incident from his past that we see in flashbacks has significantly traumatised him as a queer Black man. He has no other choice but to see such things, if only for the sake of survival. That is, if he can even survive that insular town.
“Choosing to live your life loud & proud is about the bravest thing you can do in this world.”
The cult seems to be more concerned with consuming virgins than they are with consuming the queers. Queer couples wind up becoming a scapegoat, not unlike what will surely befall the next family that moves into the house, except it’s a non-white husband and wife with a daughter. The town’s secretive cult look for any kind of difference that’s either non-hetero or non-white— Malik and Aaron were a perfect mix of both as a queer interracial couple. This is where the true insidiousness of the plot comes from, depicting the horrific way the cult uses homophobia and racism to feed their appetites. Here, they feed literally. The film’s story likewise acts well as an allegory for the way straight white society uses up the bodies and minds of queer people / people of colour.
“And when the tides change there will be someone else to be afraid of— there always is, and there always will be.” This statement by Marshal captures the worst of the dominant culture at work, getting at the heart of straight white cisgendered perspectives of anybody deemed Other. The dominant culture will always find its scapegoats, someone to turn others against, to continue feeding off physically and psychically. We see several of the byproducts of a dominant straight white culture, like how such a culture’s hegemony turns queers against themselves. Malik goes back on what he previously said to Kayla, telling her aggressively: “Don‘t speak out, don‘t speak up. It‘s not safe.” More than that, and worse, we see queers turned against each other. Aaron already doesn’t believe Malik, but it goes further. Aaron accuses Malik of letting a violent hate crime in his past turn him paranoid. He racially gaslights his partner, making him out to be a perpetual victim rather than entertain the thought that their new neighbourhood is populated by creepy white bigots.
I’ve been excited for the day queer horror would blow up. We’re living that moment. Spiral signals a new era in which those of us who identify as part of the LGBTQ2IA+ community can have films that don’t keep queer characters, stories, and themes at the margins. We can see ourselves represented. The intersectional nature of the story with Malik’s character makes everything all the more exciting. Bowyer-Chapman does an incredible job as Malik, drawing us into a space where regardless of what we believe is happening— before all is revealed— there’s a genuine sense of connection to his character, and we’re scared for him. The rest of the cast are good, but Bowyer-Chapman carries the film.
It’s one thing to have queer characters being openly queer in a film, it’s another to actually dive into important queer issues. Spiral digs deeply, and darkly, into the fears of queer people, specifically queer Black men. Malik’s experience is an allegorical representation of what so many queer Black men have gone through in their actual lives, facing communities that treat them like hired help rather than a member, dealing with straight white people who gaslight them and even white queers who do the same. The little graphic horror that pops up in Spiral is horrifying. What’s scariest are the very real social issues at the film’s core. Because the usual horror film’s boogeyman goes away after the film is over, but not these boogeymen and boogeywomen— they’re out there, many hiding in plain sight, and so, so many of them exercise their right vote.