Small towns can be sites of real horror for anyone different (source: I am from a small town.) Kurtis David Harder’s Spiral takes that ball of bigotry and runs with it. When gay couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) move to a small American town with their teen daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), Aaron is keen to embrace a slower, quieter way of life, but Malik is attuned to the strangeness in how they are treated by their neighbours. This strangeness eventually escalates into more traditional horror territory, and microaggressions become more overt aggressions.
Malik has a sharper sense of this because of his past trauma; he was gay-bashed as a teenager, with his lover severely beaten before his eyes. He’s also more cognizant of being othered because he is Black, and Bowyer-Chapman’s performance is a remarkable study in how these multiple marginalizations can affect a person – especially in a town full of expert gaslighters.
The relationship between Malik and Cohen feels very authentic. While Malik is a loud and proud former club kid just now settling into a circuit-party-free life, Cohen is older and stodgier, someone who easily passed as a Nice White Straight Man until the 90s, when gayness became (slightly) more acceptable, and he met the love of his life, Malik. The family’s backstory is deftly done, especially when it’s Kayla and Malik’s sweet relationship casting unverbalized light on the story of Kayla’s mother.
The setting of 1995 is delightful; Malik’s home office sports a huge computer and loud printer, and the pants Aaron wears are a fashion travesty. It also helps the script that, for those of us who remember the level of homophobia that was considered normal at the time, the townspeople’s initial microaggressions seem small at first in comparison.
There are other, less subtle aspects of the script and direction that land with more of a thud. I would have liked a lighter touch with the music, with stronger plot points or story beats around phone calls and medications, and with the “spiral” of the title.
The film feels very much like a three-hander between a trio of very capable actors – Cohen, Bowyer-Chapman, and Lochlyn Munro who plays the cheerful, sinister Marshal. Perhaps it’s because of my occasional indulgences in the schlock that is CW’s Riverdale, where Munro plays a heinous villain, but I felt the tension dial up as soon as Marshal appeared. Aaron wants this man to be his friend, but Malik can see him for the whited sepulcher he is (emphasis on “white.”) Marshal drives a wedge between the two men and delights in twisting it.
Spiral really isn’t a particularly scary movie: if heart-pounding horror is what you’re looking for, Spiral doesn’t quite deliver. But it’s a worthwhile watch for the carefully-considered genre take on trauma, and the oppression that lies behind the dead-eyed smiles of white cishet liberals who wave the rainbow flag every June, while supporting ‘bathroom bills’ the rest of the year.
Kurtis Harder’s SPIRAL is available across Canada on all digital platforms (iTunes, Bell, Shaw, Telus, Rogers and Cineplex) via Raven Banner.