Review: Spiral (2020)

Year: 2020

Runtime: 87 minutes

Director: Kurtis David Harder

By Jenni Holtz

“You need to stop thinking that everyone’s out to get you all the time,” Aaron (Ari Cohen) says, in an effort to comfort Malik (Jeffrey Bower-Chapman) after he shares his suspicions about their new neighbors. The couple’s new neighborhood is picturesque: large homes sit among lush greenery and rolling hills. Despite the beauty on the outside, Malik fears there’s something sinister going on. In his search for answers, he uncovers things that make stomachs churn and hearts stop. Aaron’s words of dismissal push Malik deeper and deeper into the search for answers, changing both of their lives forever.

Kurtis David Harder’s queer horror film “Spiral” (2020) centers a gay interracial couple, something not seen often enough on-screen. The pair move to a small town in the 1990’s to raise their teenage daughter, Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). As they meet neighbors, Aaron and Kayla begin to form friendships and relationships, but Malik doesn’t have the same success. He feels disconnected from them and even wary that something is wrong; fears that are heightened after the word “f*ggot” appears in their home in red spray paint. When Aaron hears about Malik’s worries, Malik is swiftly shut down, leading him to investigate on his own. At the local library, he makes a chilling discovery: a lesbian couple was found dead in Aaron and Malik’s home just ten years ago. Malik runs with this information and the stakes continue to heighten, moving “Spiral” from family drama to horror movie in a matter of moments. 

Image courtesy of Digital Interference

Unfortunately, the exciting premise falls flat in practice. There is a major tone shift between the full-family scenes and scenes with Malik alone, to the point where it feels like this film, with a few minor plot changes, could become a dramedy. The film takes the horror and drama route though, beginning with Aaron’s denial of Malik’s suspicions. No one believes Malik when he voices concerns, which feels unrealistic and strange, especially because Aaron didn’t try to work things out with Malik. Aaron’s default reaction was to deny what Malik shares rather than to help and take his partner’s side. This feels out of place given their otherwise strong, steady relationship. 

Nearly all of the horror elements are all tied to the neighbor’s homophobia. Though the presence of homophobic neighbors reflects some gay couples’ experience, the way they are weaponized in this film makes gayness feel like a plot device rather than a facet of the characters’ identities. As a gay person myself, I felt this film minimized the reality of homophobia by making the evil come from a weird cult when really, seemingly kind people can be deeply homophobic. This makes it easier for homophobic people who watch this film to think “Oh, they’re in a homophobic cult. I’m not like them so I’m not that homophobic.” Because of this, the film does not seem like it would incite a change of heart for homophobic people and folks with unconscious bias against gay people. Since the film centers gayness as a device rather than an identity, lacks a strong message, and the characters feel flat and unrealistic, the film is hard to truly enjoy; even with some interesting horror elements throughout. 

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