Occult Rituals and Hate Crimes: ‘Spiral’ Brings a Queer Perspective to Small-Town Horror

In Spiral, the latest original offering from Shudder, gay couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) have moved to a sleepy town with their daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte) to start a new life. Malik, haunted by recollections of a vicious homophobic attack in his teens, begins to suspect that something malicious is going on behind the placid suburban facade. Subtle manifestations of homophobia from their neighbours start to intensify beyond the point of small-town prejudice. Malik becomes convinced that occult forces are at work and that his family are in danger.

Spiral draws easy comparisons with Get Out, and the parallels are obvious. In both films, marginalised characters grapple with implicit violence that lurks behind a veneer of middle-class liberal acceptance. Furthermore, both films expertly conjure feelings of alienation and isolation for their protagonists. The characters are practically under siege from the outset, with ignorant micro-aggressions mutating into genuinely lethal threats over the course of each film.

However, Spiral‘s comparisons with Get Out may also be its downfall. It doesn’t quite stand up to Peele’s vision in terms of the scope of its world-building. Whereas Get Out was startlingly original throughout, there are a few points where Spiral falls back on some slightly tired horror tropes. One scene in particular relies on a jump-scare based around a motif so hackneyed that we were surprised to see it used unironically in a 2020 horror movie.

Where Spiral picks up points is in the strength of the central performance. Bowyer-Chapman Is rock-solid as Malik, whose instincts to protect his family are so strong that they drive him to the brink of madness. It’s an incredibly demanding role, and one that he handles fantastically, taking us from small-town paranoia straight through to rage, terror and a frantic desperation to save his loved ones. The dynamic between him and Aaron is interesting as well, and the ups and downs of their relationship, from the mundane to the potentially deadly, all feel recognisably human.

As a long-time out gay man with a traumatic homophobic assault in his past, Malik is naturally cautious and slow to trust. Aaron, on the other hand, only recently having come out and left his wife for Malik, is naive about some of the realities of their situation. He is all too willing to take their neighbours’ apparently progressive demeanours at face value, whereas Malik is more attuned to their subtle hostility. The friction that this creates between them is realistic and grounded, and events conspire to put further strain on their relationship, undermining the solid foundations that they had hoped to build a new life upon.

One of the strongest themes that Spiral explores is generational trauma, and how systemic oppression repeats and sustains itself, creating patterns of violence that are impossible to escape. Drawing an analogy between homophobic violence and occult rituals of renewal that reinvigorate the isolated community, Spiral effectively hammers this point home. It’s a great example of how horror tropes can be used to interrogate pressing societal issues.

Spiral is another solid entry for Shudder in a roster of originals that is growing more impressive all the time. It’s also great to see a new queer-centric horror film on the platform. It isn’t a perfect film, and occasionally it undermines the originality of its perspective with some outdated tropes. When it uses the supernatural as a metaphor, it is spot on, but where it uses it to scare, it often falls flat. At its best, however, it is a character-driven thriller with sinister undertones, an important social point to make and a striking central performance.


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