“Spiral” is a cleverly-conceived riff on familiar horror themes, an attempt to make a gay “Get Out.” A same-sex couple moves to suburban Illinois with one partner’s teen daughter, and weird, scary things begin to happen.
But this film, not to be confused with the “Spiral” movie from “The Book of Saw,” starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson and due out next year, doesn’t quite come off. It traffics in too many false frights, leans heavily on lapses in logic and loses its way when super-naturalism kicks in.
Aaron (Ari Cohen) and Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) figure this fresh start — a move to boost Aaron’s career — is just what they need, the peace and quiet of small town life.
Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), Aaron’s daughter from his just-ended marriage, is an eye-rolling teen who doesn’t judge her dad’s new love. Malik, a younger man who came out early and grew up to be a writer, appreciates that.
“Choosing to live your life loud and proud is about the bravest thing you can do in this world.”
But “this world” is ready to put that to the test. Vintage cars and an ancient, homophobic Patrick Buchanan red meat “values” speech on the radio tell us this is the mid-90s. The first neighbor (Paul McGaffey) they meet is elderly and seemingly hostile to this same-sex/different races couple.
Aaron may head off to work each day, and Kayla takes her shot at being the exotic ” new girl in school,” but Malik is at home — tapping away on a PC, “ghost writing” the biography of some academic shaker and mover.
And Malik hears and sees things. He comes back from a job and finds a slur painted on the living room wall. He notices the starchy looks, even from neighbors (Chandra West, Lochlyn Munroe) who make an effort to seem ‘friendly.'”
“We don’t have any of you in town.”
Malik is, as we say these days, “triggered.” He has flashbacks to a hate crime of his youth. He gets more “warnings” and…he doesn’t tell Aaron any of this. He simply confides to an old friend from his “single” days, and has an alarm system installed.
Director Kurtis David Harder (“Kody Fitz”) struggles to make this story an “Is it real or is this all in his head?” thriller, and have it all make sense. Apparitions, a glimpse through a window at a strange ritual, a “clue” that prompts a search through the archives, it all fits together but doesn’t do so gracefully.
Bowyer-Chapman, of the Lifetime series “Unreal,” and Cohen (of the “It” movies) bring a warmth and familiarity to their couple, with hints of a “swinging” period in the relationship. With such intimacy, though, the lack of a reasonable explanation for Malik’s keeping his growing fears a secret is jarring.
The villains are mild-mannered archetypes, and thus never fool us for a second.
Bowyer-Chapman has to carry the film, and he does — believably depicting Malik’s loosening grip on reality, not seeing what the viewer has leapt ahead to conclude.
But for all the unraveling psyche and worst-fears-realized stakes, there’s not much suspense here, and little to grip the viewer and draw us in.
As the film crawls toward its conclusion, there’s a sense that the “Spiral” here is going straight down the drain.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sexual situations
Cast: Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Ari Cohen, Jennifer Laporte, Chandra West, Lochlyn Munroe and Paul McGaffey
Credits: Directed by Kurtis David Harder, script by Colin Minihan, John Poliquin. A Shudder release.
Running time: 1:30