Trauma has a nasty way of never letting us completely move past it. It shapes us and helps give birth to the person we eventually become as adults. Similarly, on a macro scale, society rarely moves entirely past the trauma that it has inflicted on us. Kurt Harder’s Spiral is a story in which trauma has made the protagonist an unreliable narrator, but paradoxically one who is entirely justified in their fear and paranoia. It’s a story about what lies just beneath the surface of an idyllic community, the price that is paid for keeping said community idyllic, and how trauma rarely goes away entirely.
Spiral is the story of Liam and Malik, a same-sex couple who move to a small town with their daughter, Kayla. At first, all seems to be perfect: the town is quaint and quiet, and their neighbors are almost too accepting of the couple’s lifestyle. Malik begins to suspect something is deeply amiss when he spies his neighbor performing what appears to be a ritual of sorts one night in their living room, and his suspicion only deepens when they provide an extremely transparent and flimsy excuse. After an incident in which a homophobic slur is spray-painted on their wall, Malik is convinced there is something sinister afoot.
Soon, he is being second guessed by everyone in his life, and it becomes apparent that the people of the town are actively working to divide him and his husband up and paint him as an unhinged madman so they can do whatever it is they’re going to do and get away with it. The film culminates in a horrific confrontation straight out of Rosemary’s Baby.
Harder is quite adept at mixing a hodgepodge of influences into something that, while not wholly original or groundbreaking, is still an enjoyable film. Spiral has been compared to the work of Jordan Peele, and to some degree I think that is accurate. Peele created a name for himself by showing us the bigotry that oftentimes hides just beneath the pleasant façade of main street U.S.A. He skewers limousine liberal types just as effectively as he does out and out white supremacists, and shows us how white paternalism is often a façade for something far more dangerous.
Harder largely succeeds in crafting a world in which the horrific bigotry that is far more prevalent than most people care to admit is lurking just around the corner, but Spiral, when stripped of the politics of sexuality and race, resembles the work of Hitchcock and Polanski far more than it does Peele. While queerness does play a large part in this film, it doesn’t necessarily feel essential to the story, whereas Peele’s films seem to be predicated on the plight of a marginalized community. Malik’s queerness serves mostly as a vehicle to explore the source of his paranoia (a vicious attack on him and his partner as a teenager; and heads up, it’s very brutal) and to further cast he and his partner as “outsiders.” Aside from that, however, I don’t think queerness is really inherent to what this story is trying to say. Hence, the idea that it is far more like a Polanski film, especially his “apartment” films, and Hitchcock, especially Rear Window. I’d also go as far as saying there’s more than a touch of The Wicker Man as well, in that an outsider begins to suspect there is something horribly wrong with a community.
I enjoyed this film for the most part. I think Harder is quite adept at creating a slow burn-style horror film where the feeling of dread and fear builds and builds instead of just shoving our faces into it. There’s a skill to creating true fear without relying on horrific imagery, and I think Harder is successful. He uses a past trauma to help us understand why the characters are the way they are, and he excels at making the audience empathize with and care for those characters. Similarly, he is equally adept at making villains who, while undeniably evil, are also somewhat relatable and sympathetic. At no point are you rooting for the bad guys, but at least you understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. As transparent they may be, they never become caricatures of themselves.
Alas, my only real problem with this movie was that it wanted to place queerness front and center in the film and make this a film about queerness, but I think it comes off as too halfhearted to really suceed. Sure, it would be nice to have a movie with a same-sex couple in which their sexuality wasn’t the focal point of the film and was instead just another aspect of the character (you know, how cishet marriages are treated in films the vast majority of the time) but in this case, it really feels like Harder set out to make a film about the terror that LGBTQ folk face every day. Which is a commendable thing to do; I certainly think that maybe if the rest of the country understood how it still is to be gay, they’d be a sight more empathic to what the LGBTQ community goes through.
But ultimately, the film feels like it’s unable to really make the jump and rip open the underbelly of Everytown U.S.A to show us the vile bigotry that is never far away. Not that I want to hear such a word shouted from the rooftops, but the characters hesitance to say a certain slur for homosexual men after it is spray painted on their wall comes off as somewhat disingenuous. I understand the slur can be quite triggering for gay men, but in a film in which we witness a young, gay man being beaten to death while his boyfriend watches helplessly, I’m just confused as to why they chose to draw the line at saying a word when they saw fit to show us a graphic depiction of violence against gay men. The idea of a gay couple facing a sinister community that has sinister intent for them all while nodding and smiling and preaching tolerance is a fascinating premise. I’m just not sure that Harder did a good job in telling that story.
All that aside, I recommend this film. It’s just enough tension and fear in it to keep you on the edge of your seat, and the performances from just about everyone are top notch, especially Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman as our protagonist Malik. Bowyer-Chapman infuses Malik with an almost pathetic, yet justified frailty given his past experience with homophobia, and his descent into straight up hysteria is fascinating if not heartbreaking to witness. His contrast with his partner, who is somewhat of a more traditionally masculine, white gay man, really defines the danger that he’s facing: in their relationship, not only is he the more effeminate of the two, but he is also a Black man in an entirely white neighborhood full of sinister goings on. He has every single right to be terrified out of his mind, and he excels at doing so. The other performances in this film are adequate, in that Malik’s partner and daughter are almost non-entities throughout much of the film and the neighbors are very clearly up to something from the moment we see them, but there’s nothing in that aspect that turned me off from this movie.
Spiral is ultimately a story of how we are helpless to walk entirely away from a traumatic past, especially when the present seems to make even less sense. Malik feels as if his world is crumbling and constantly falls back on calling an old boyfriend for reassurances. He has never really mastered the art of living in the present and thus continues to hold on to the past, never seeing the true danger of what’s going on until it’s far too late even after learning the sordid history of his new neighborhood. This film may miss the mark it sets out to strike, but it’s still a fascinating albeit heart-wrenching story about not letting go and not being able to make sense of the world around you.
Spiral is now streaming on Shudder.