SPIRAL ***** Canada 2019 Dir: Kurtis David Harder. 90 mins
Co-written by John Poliquin and latter-day Canadian genre maestro Colin Minihan, SPIRAL sports a familiar horror narrative structure. It opens with a past act of violence that will haunt the present before unravelling a cycle of horrific events destined to recur every decade. Its execution, however, is far from routine: a powerful character-driven piece about society’s unending need to pursue a scapegoat, the relentless persecution of a minority group in order to justify pre-existing cultural prejudices and individual insecurities. SPIRAL is a truly chilling 21st century horror film.
Following the 1983-set prologue, it shifts to 1995 and the timing is significant: the dialogue alludes to enduring AIDS paranoia in the portrait of mid-90s attitudes to homosexuality. The protagonist’s confidence about being “loud and proud” is juxtaposed with the sinister undertones of the Clinton-era divide in “God’s country”. The characters are intelligently played: divorcee Aaron (Ari Cohen) ekes out a 9-5 existence and just wants to settle quietly in the suburbia of Rusty Creek, Illinois with handsome free-spirited writer-partner Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). There’s an unforced chemistry between the three, capturing a loving family unit built on the foundation of past failures and emotional pain. They dance to loveably naff 80s dance music while Kayla asks frankly about their sexual awakenings and takes 90s selfies with a Polaroid camera.
Naturally, something is rotten in this idyllic American suburbia. The chipper face of white, liberal U.S.A. represented by Tiffany (Chandra West) and Marshal (Lochlyn Munro) hides the ominous reality of how quick they were to mistake the black guy for a gardener – and how they respond to the novelty of welcoming a same-sex couple (“We don’t have any of you in town -wow that’s so exciting!”). Beneath the smiley surface is a dark side confirmed by someone daubing “faggot” on their walls. Malik becomes the traditional “Something’s Not Right Here” character, straining to convince his loved ones of the perceived threat while his sense of reality fractures.
SPIRAL’s “monsters” are the kind prone to cheerily whistling “When the Saints Go Marching In”. They feed on the only reliable thing about humanity: “When the tides change, there’ll be someone else to be afraid of. It’s human nature, fear – we just exploit it…” This deceptively understated picture may be set in 1995 but, depressingly, its central theme couldn’t be more timely right now. It builds to moments of genuine alarm without relying on shocks or jump scares: the single moment of visual horror truly jolts thanks to the care taken to develop warm, believable characters. These protagonists, particularly Bowyer-Chapman’s increasingly haunted hero, provide hope but the coda confirms how, in one way or another, we will always repeat the same, often devastating mistakes, promoting ‘The Other’ as something to be fearful of, following the same rituals at the cost of innumerable lives.
Review by Steven West