★★ / ★★★★
When Kurtis David Harder’s “Spiral” is at its best, it is reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” From the moment same-sex couple Malik and Aaron (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Ari Cohen), along with their teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), arrive in the unnamed small town, the paranoia in the air is palpable; it is too clean, too quiet, too suburban. This is a much-needed change of pace from what the trio is used to. Malik, a black man who remains traumatized from a hate crime he experienced when he was a teenager, suspects something is off. Soon a welcoming white neighbor comes to visit and claims, “Nothing ever changes around here.”
The minimalistic approach feels right in a movie like this. We get the usual events like a character waking up in the middle of the night due to a noise coming from downstairs (naturally, he is compelled to investigate), looking out one’s window and witnessing a bizarre sort of gathering (could a cult be afoot?), and penetrating looks from neighbors as a new face—a black face—jogs down the street. But when the picture gets specific—like when Malik comes home and discovers that someone had broken into their home and spray painted “FAGGOT” on the wall—this is when the work is most powerful—and immediate—because it is a specific attack. It is so personal and so hurtful that the N-word might as well have been spray painted, too. “People don’t change,” Malik tells Aaron, who is white, “They just get better at hiding [their hatred].”
But is there something sinister going on or is Malik simply hallucinating? Eventually, Malik begins to see ghostly figures (which I find to be lame attempts at jump scares). He even exhibits problems with processing time. Aaron believes everything is fine, that his partner is simply having trouble adjusting to their new life. (Aaron leaves for work early while Malik works at home as a ghostwriter. Perhaps Malik has been too cooped up in the house of increasing horrors.) Meanwhile, Kayla has found a friend (or maybe more) in Tyler (Ty Wood), a charming teenager who lives across the street with his parents, Marshal and Tiffany (Lochlyn Munro, Chandra West). The screenplay by Colin Minihan and John Poliquin takes far too long to provide a definitive answer—which comes with a cost.
The work’s exposition and rising action slap viewers into paying attention. And so it is critical that we are provided a climax that delivers—preferably one that surpasses expectations. We are given neither. The climax is creepy but expected and nothing special—a disappointment because there are numerous instances that point to the community’s fear of The Other. The Other, in this case, is a same-sex couple whereby half is a black man. The big reveal offers minimal flavor despite the meat of the film having marinated for so long. Why isn’t it more specific? It would have been a perfect opportunity to tap into the zeitgeist of the ‘90s when gay men were feared not only for their sexuality and lifestyles but also the possibility of them having AIDS.
Even events after the revelations come across rushed. There are ways to make viewers want to know more without the material being reduced to an incomplete story. It comes across as though the writers forgot that this is Malik’s story and so the denouement must be specific to him. We follow him, and so his desire becomes our desire; his needs, our needs. Malik’s trauma, sadness, and anger for having been a victim of hate crime in the ‘80s propel him to discover and, if possible, expose then uproot a potential nefarious plot. The picture goes for a haunting ending but it is not at all satisfying.