Spiral is an expertly crafted surreal suburban nightmare with an important social message at its center. The film manages to build a steady tension that it maintains until the final frame, and it never stops throwing surprises at the audience that actually work. The film’s premise is familiar enough, seeing a younger couple move away from the hustle and bustle of the big city of Chicago to a quiet life somewhere in the suburbs. Once there, the family falls prey to their neighbors, who have special plans for them. It’s familiar enough at a distance, but the characters make all the difference in director Kurtis David Harder (What Keeps You Alive)’s Spiral. The couple in question is Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) and Aaron’s teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). Instead of the quiet life they had intended, they’re met with paranoia, suspicion, and fear.
Spiral takes place in the mid-’90s, which is extremely important to remember in the context of Malik and Aaron’s gay partnership and how that was viewed in mainstream America at the time. 1994 may not seem like that long ago, but things were radically different in the fight for equality in the LGBTQIA+ community. Marriage equality would not be legally recognized in the United States until 2012. Spiral places on these fears in a terrifying experience about life as “the other” in contemporary America and the inherent fears that come with being black and gay and trying to simply exist.
Malik is the central character in Spiral and this film works in large part thanks to Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman’s performance. It’s an extremely nuanced portrayal of a man that is slipping slowly into madness by way of a sinister gaslighting. Spiral puts Malik firmly in the center and forces the audience to see a glimpse of the much-needed perspective of a gay black man in an interracial relationship with a white man. It’s a complicated existence that sees many layers of fear, hate, and danger in their path for simply living his life in the open. Imagine if that fear was purposefully exploited—more than it already is just living in America—by a group of suburbanite cultists who may be more than they appear. It’s a recipe for horrific tragedy, and that’s precisely what Spiral delivers.
There are a lot of social issues intertwined into the Spiral’s narrative, which is written by Colin Minihan (Grave Encounters) and John Poliquin (Grave Encounters 2). Not only are Malik and Aaron living out as a gay couple in the mid-’90s in suburban conservative America, but they are also interracial. Aaron doesn’t ever seem to quite understand the inherent fear Malik has of the outside world, despite the fact that he knows Malik survived and witnessed a vicious hate crime when he was a teen. Spiral intersperses flashbacks of the incident throughout the film as Malik becomes more aware of what’s happening to the family, highlighting his distressed mental state. Where other recent films such as It: Chapter 2 (2019) stumbled over incorporating hate crimes into the narrative, Spiral succeeds. The murder Malik witnessed isn’t used as a plot device, but for character development that helps the viewer understand Malik’s motivations and attitudes.
Spiral smartly only shows glimpses of the supernatural, so even though the film gets quite fantastical, in hindsight it always feels like it’s quite grounded. The film wants to remind you that the underlying fear that drives the cult to do what they do is very much alive and prevalent in our society today. One review already billed Spiral as “Polanski meets Peele.” That assessment is right on the money. There’s a lot of Roman Polanski (Repulsion) running through in Spiral’s DNA, and it’s shown through a post-Get Out (2017) lens. Malik could easily be a play on Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) from Polanksi’s genre-defining Rosemary’s Baby (1968). They are both tragic figures that are victims of circumstance and gaslit to the extreme by nefarious outside forces. Those outside forces in Spiral are represented by Malik and Aaron’s neighbors, Marsha (Loclyn Munro) and Tiffany (Chandra West). They embody the banality of evil that exists and runs wild behind closed doors throughout middle and upper-class white America. Loclyn Munro (Freddy vs. Jason) is a standout and gives a chilling, career turning performance that is both subtle and terrifying.
It would be an absolute crime to spoil the end of Spiral, but it is shocking and will make audiences rewind just to make sure their eyes weren’t deceiving them. It is a gut-wrenching, jaw-dropping finale that has to be seen to be believed. Spiral won’t ever be accused of being a feel-good hit of the summer. It’s much more than that. This film is a journey into the dark beating heart of white America seen through the eyes of one of “the others” that world fears and denigrates, the gay black man. The most heartbreaking moment in Spiral sees Malik a broken man, refuting what he had once told Kayla about living your life proud of who you are. He tells her instead to keep her head down and live in fear. This is the very decision that men and women like Malik are faced with every single day. Spiral confronts these issues head-on while at the same time delivering a nuanced, terrifying story that’s expertly directed and character-driven.