While horror films have long been a vehicle for social commentary, they also have a history of sexism, racism and homophobia. Much of the LGBTQ representation in horror films is subtextual, exploitative or outright offensive. “Spiral” — a new politically charged psychological horror film about a same-sex couple in a rural town — is a welcome change of positive LGBTQ representation in the genre. While I appreciate the film’s attempts at social commentary, “Spiral” ultimately suffers from an underdeveloped plot and uneven script.
David Kurtis Harder’s directorial debut, “Spiral” is exclusive to Shudder, a streaming platform for horror, thriller and suspense films. This was only my second time watching a Shudder Original, but I was more impressed by my first experience with “Host” (2020). “Spiral” hasn’t received much buzz, but after seeing familiar faces such as Ari Cohen (“IT”) and Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman (“American Horror Story”) attached, I was cautiously optimistic.
The film begins in 1983 with two young men making out in a car — a variation on the classic horror trope. In a disturbing scene, three men with baseball bats approach, dragging one of the young men out of the car and beating him. We then jump forward to 1995. Malik (Bowyer-Chapman), one of the young men from the opening scene, is a writer who has left the city to start a new life in a small town with his husband Aaron (Cohen) and step-daughter Kayla (Jennifer LaPorte). While Aaron believes that times have changed and homophobia is no longer a concern, it is clear that Malik’s past still haunts him. After a series of strange and disturbing incidents, Malik becomes convinced that he and his family are being targeted by their neighbors, who are less accepting than they may seem. However, as Malik grows closer to discovering the truth, both his relationship with Aaron and his grip on reality begin to deteriorate.
At its core, “Spiral” explores the paranoia that comes with being gay in a homophobic society — and the terror of discovering that your fear is justified. The tension between Malik and Aaron, who have very different experiences with homophobia, is one of the more compelling parts of the film. Knowing that there are people who hate and fear you for who you are, do you stand proud or do your best to assimilate?
A thoughtful exploration of these themes could form the basis of an excellent horror film. However, “Spiral” rarely shows when it can tell, outright stating its themes rather than taking a more subtle approach. In a particularly cringeworthy moment, the villain explains the messages of the film in a poorly executed monologue. It often feels like “Spiral” is trying to be the next “Get Out” but isn’t clever enough to pull off the sharp political commentary it aspires for.
Misguided efforts at commentary aside, “Spiral” is a middling horror movie. On a technical level, it is a well-made film. The visuals are striking, the soundtrack is unnerving and the acting is generally very good. The naturally charismatic Bowyer-Chapman is excellent in his leading role. And while “Spiral” occasionally veers into melodrama, there are some truly heartrending moments throughout. However, “Spiral” doesn’t do much with the horror tropes it borrows, other than throwing in some LGBTQ themes.
The plot is more or less predictable, and the twist is less developed than I would have liked. For a film about the terror of prejudice, most of the tension comes from generic horror movie scares — creepy cults, abandoned houses, spooky attics and a couple pints of fake blood. This, in combination with some frustrating plot holes and contrived drama caused by poor communication (in what world would you not tell your husband about the homophobic slur painted on your living room wall by your creepy neighbors?), makes for an unsatisfying film. While “Spiral” poses some interesting questions throughout its runtime, it ends with some generic commentary about how violence against marginalized people is often overlooked. While true, this is a surface level observation for a movie that had the potential to say much more.
“Spiral” is far from a bad film, but it is an underwhelming one. I am always happy to see more inclusivity in horror, but “Spiral” fails to live up to its potential.