“An enjoyable, if reductive queer horror film with a strong lead performance at its center.”
The horror genre has always been rooted in reality. From reflecting our ills and anxieties to portraying them as monstrous and vicious manifestations, horror filmmakers have long held up a mirror to society in an effort to explore our deepest and darkest fears. From films such as Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, where a mother’s bout with grief manifested itself as a monster slithering out of the pages of her son’s favorite book, to Jordan Peele’s Get Out, which successfully managed to portray the hidden, insidious nature of liberal racism, contemporary horror movies have managed to tap into our very real concerns and insecurities, transforming them into effective and largely successful horror films. One specific community, though, ripe with its own plethora of real-life horrors and social anxieties, has surprisingly not been explored within the genre, at least not as frequently or transparently as many others.
Many filmmakers have chosen to depict queerness in their films in a strictly subtextual and codified manner. Movies such as 1955’s Les Diaboliques, 1987’s The Lost Boys and most famously, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge are filled to the brim with so much queer subtext that it’s a wonder that these films managed to camouflage them for as long as they did. Some films such as 2014’s Lyle and 2018’s What Keeps You Alive portrayed the LGBTQ+ community in a more concise (and positive) manger but they largely flew under the radar in a market dominated with more conventional horror films. Spiral, the latest from director Kurtis David Harder and writers Colin Minihan (who also co-wrote the aforementioned What Keeps You Alive) and John Poliquin, attempts to right this wrong and in the process, becomes one of the most unapologetically queer horror films in recent memory.
Spiral centers on Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen), a couple who, along with their 16-year-old daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), move to a suburban small town in the mid-90s in search for a better quality of life and a peaceful environment in which they can raise Kayla with the best social values. At first, things seem to be going smoothly – Aaron has managed to find a proper job, and Malik has plenty of time and space to work on his new book. But appearances can be deceiving, and Malik, who is haunted by visions of an ex-boyfriend’s tragic death, suddenly finds himself a victim of a series of seemingly homophobic hate crimes that he suspects is part of a larger plot to drive him and his family out of town.
Spiral starts off with a literal bang as Malik, Aaron and Kayla, driving their way into town, are caught off-guard by a blunt object that strikes their car, leaving a spiral-shaped crack on the windshield. From that moment on, the film never lets up, with the tense, cringe-inducing awkwardness experienced by its characters – who are not only moving into a new town as strangers but also as gay men during the height of the AIDS pandemic – slowly souring into something more sinister as the film progresses. Director Kurtis David Harder manages to perfectly portray the foreboding feelings of loneliness and alienation that many members of the queer community still experience to this day and the film is at its best when it explores those aspects of its characters. A third act twist that sees the film shift gears into something more supernatural nearly throws it off its tracks, with the addition of more conventional horror elements almost undermining the cultural and social fears the film successfully tackles in its first two acts. Thankfully, things stay relatively on track – which is a huge credit to the performance of lead actor Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman.
Bowyer-Chapman is the heart and soul of the film, delivering a fearless and expertly tuned performance as a man drowning in paranoia and desperation to save his family from what he believes to be a dark and gruesome fate. Perfectly capturing the deteriorating nature of a man slowly descending into a paranoia-induced bout of madness, Bowyer-Chapman builds a finely painted façade of a family man that gradually begins to crack as the film progresses. Meanwhile, Cohen and Laporte struggle to find any depth in their largely underwritten roles while the rest of the cast, which includes Scary Movie star Lochlyn Munro, manage to establish a sinister presence that permeates throughout the film, creating a real sense of dread that will make viewers as anxious as its lead character.
Overall, Spiral is an enjoyable, yet reductive (especially in its third act), queer horror film with a strong central performance that is worth the price of admission alone.
Dir: Kurtis David Harder
Prod: Chris Ball, Kurtis David Harder, Colin Minihan and John Poliquin
Cast: Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Ari Cohen and Jennifer Laporte
Release Date: September 17, 2020 (Shudder)
Header image courtesy of Shudder