By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, Ari Cohen, Jennifer Laporte
Directed by Kurtis David Harder
Written by Colin Minihan, John Poliquin
Produced by Digital Interference Productions, Hadron Films
If this were a different film, I would probably open this article with a statement I’ve made before, like “I fucking love cults.” In fact I was planning on it, because SPIRAL pitches itself as Get Out meets Rosemary’s Baby, a film where a gay couple moves to a small town and gets targeted by the good American suburbanites that live there.
But SPIRAL isn’t really a film about cults.
I was primarily interested in seeing how the cult aspect would figure into this film, as the trailers and promotional materials showcased the figures in black with silver masks all throughout. Would they be explicitly homophobic? Would they go the Get Out route and pretend to be liberal? What does the composition of the cult and the beliefs of its’ members say about the state of the modern world? And while I got what I expected out of the first half of this film, the turn it takes in it’s second… well…
If you come into this film expecting anything like I did, the route SPIRAL takes will likely surprise you.
SPIRAL is a film that is up front and unambiguous about it’s messaging; the film explicitly explores the ever-evolving pattern of hate in modern America, the almost supernatural sticking power of these beliefs, and the permanent mark they make on those who hold them and those who are victimized by them. The first half of the film takes the Get Out route and showcases how homophobia and hatred mask themselves in the modern day: the antagonists monologue about homophobic assholes, characters question Kayla (Jennifer Laporte) about what her home life must be like, and the cult uses anti-gay stereotypes to manipulate Aaron (Ari Cohen) and Malik (Jeffrey Bower-Chapman) into making decisions that further their agenda. The film also briefly touches on conversion therapy and hints that certain members of the cult may have been put through it (we will return to that in a moment). But as the film goes on, most of that is traded for an Invisible Man-esque psychological horror arc for Malik, and the film trades most of its’ specificity for a general statement on how hate operates. The ultimate antagonist says “when the tides change, there will be someone else to be afraid of. There always is. There always will be.” The film’s thesis, in short, is that there are monsters out there who feed off of hate no matter the target; if they are allowed to operate in secret, the pattern will continue.
“SPIRAL’s anti-hate message is inspirational but too general, avoiding addressing the root of the problem; communal and societal ignorance.”
On it’s face, I love this message. But I also can’t help but see it as too unspecific. The cult aspect of the film is almost forgotten, the true enemies being nameless monsters who feed off of fear, and for me that also negates the statement of communal responsibility that comes with a cult. The fear of ordinary folks is referenced but never truly showcased, as “ordinary” members of the cult are almost never focused on. The one exception would be Matthew (Thomas Elms), a character who, for a moment, reveals he might not be 100% straight right around the time the film starts dipping into conversion therapy. Whether that was another attempt by the cult to drive Aaron and Malik apart or a statement about how white Christian society press-gangs their youth into accepting a rigid view of sexuality is unclear; I personally felt it was the beginning of a statement about conversion therapy, one that was never expanded upon. But generally, the only antagonists we get to see are the creatures who feed off hate to sustain themselves, and I feel that cheapens the film’s message a bit. I also wasn’t really sure about Malik’s Invisible Man arc; maybe it was meant to be a statement on how the perception that the modern world has progressed beyond widespread homophobia can be used to gaslight queer individuals who have experienced the opposite. If that’s the case, SPIRAL did a great job of depicting just that; but I kind of wish (as I mentioned above) that the threat was more grounded in reality, or at the very least that Aaron was more aware of the threat throughout the film.
Messaging aside, the film is a more than decent thrill ride, stringing viewers along as its mysteries start to unravel. The threat the cult poses looms over every scene, and much of the viewer’s time will be spent figuring out what the cult’s endgame actually is; who is involved, what are they aiming to accomplish, is anything actually happening or is Malik going mad? The answers were a little too vague to satisfy this reviewer, but no doubt that won’t be the case for everyone. The ending is brutally nihilistic and sadly appropriate, but it also leaves things just open-ended enough with a hopeful call-to-arms. “If anybody can dismantle this cycle of violence,” SPIRAL says to its audience, “it’s you.” I think that’s exactly the kind of sentiment we need in 2020.
I’m giving SPIRAL an 8. If you’re looking for a socially conscious cult thriller that dabbles in psychological horror, give this a spin.
Next week, we cover Mortuary off of Shudder.