Spiral is a bit of a horror tropes mishmash, but at its core it holds the fear of being different or misunderstood for merely being true to yourself.
The film starts like so many other horror films: with a family moving to a new town. Couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) are clearly in love, and taking their whole lives along with Aaron’s teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte) to live in the middle of nowhere. Aaron can pick up his work without missing a beat, and Malik can do his ghostwriting anywhere. Money is tight, but getting out of the city makes it all worth it.
Just as soon as they arrive it is clear that this town is not the idyllic escape from the rat race they hoped it would be. Their elderly neighbor stares at Malik through their windows, and another neighbor, Tiffany (Chandra West), assumes that Malik is the gardener when she drops by with a housewarming plant. As a gay black man who suffers traumatic flashbacks, Malik is no stranger to being unwelcome, but when someone breaks into their house and spray paints a slur on their wall Malik no longer feels safe. And when he sees the neighbors all acting awfully strange, Malik wants to know what the hell is going on.
Spiral suffers from many horror tropes and cliches. From unsettling townies to secret notes it is clear that there is something going on here. Malik even goes so far as to have a good old fashioned microfiche research scene. We’ve got blood pouring on Kayla in her sleep and spontaneously appearing video tapes. It is hard at times to figure out exactly what leads we should be following, and the horror dispenser seems to be throwing everything it has at Malik.
However, even with this deluge of typical horror ephemera, Spiral still manages to feel cohesive, and that is all thanks to Malik. Bowyer-Chapman truly sinks into the role of the terrified but proud man, and while it might be misleading where the horror is coming from, with Malik leading us it is easy to follow. The character is also given the attention and backstory to make us care what happens to him. Not only do we live through his traumatic past with him repeatedly, we also must suffer with him through his current writing gig, which is a biography of a bigoted old white guy. The hate he feels every day is not just in his past, but it is paying his bills too. He is a good step dad and a loving husband, and he does not deserve this.
Stylistically, Spiral tends to telegraph its scares through musical cues and Malik’s sense of danger. The saving grace here is the fact that it is impossible to know what is coming next, because it is unclear what he is up against. The misdirection has mixed results, and can lead to confusion as well as fright, but never boredom.
On a whole, Spiral is unfocused and scattered. But an empathetic central character and a solid performance pull us through the mess and into a few solid scares and frights.