Friday, September 18, 2020

On The Chopping Block: Spiral (2020)

The main characters of Spiral, in better times

Representation matters.

That's the old mantra, right? Meant to address the importance of minority groups wanting to see themselves reflected on the screen, both big and little. It's definitely on my mind, being a big ol' homo, and a large part of why I was really excited when I learned about Spiral late last year. Most of the time, queer men don't get to be in the spotlight in horror films. As I discussed back in June with my write-up on Into The Dark's "Midnight Kiss", the only other horror films I knew of with queer men as the main characters besides that one were Hellbent and Killer Unicorn. Otherwise, it's usually just relegated to subtext, reading between the lines, however you want to put it. So, I knew I had to seek out Spiral whenever it came out, which it finally did on Thursday on Shudder. Especially as I was happy to see that the main character and half of the gay couple would also be black, as queer men of color are seen even less on screen than their white counterparts. 

Now, I've seen many make the comparison to Jordan Peele's film Get Out. Certainly Get Out was an influence, what with both films revolving around an interracial couple going into suburbia and at least one part of said couple having to deal with prejudiced folks who have an insidious agenda. However, another piece of media stuck out more in my mind as perhaps a more apt comparison: American Horror Story: Cult. Both Spiral and Cult deal with a gay couple with a child becoming the target of their neighborhood's nefarious schemes, both even getting marked for doom (Spiral's Malik and Aaron with a, what else, spiral and Cult's Ally and Ivy with a smiley face). Malik, like Ally, is gaslit to the max by the other characters and the story largely revolves around him trying to figure out what is actually going on, much like Cult revolved around Ally learning the truth about the titular cult. Both also address homophobia, albeit Spiral does in more depth as its a singular eighty seven minute film versus an eleven episode limited series with more going on.

Which brings us to what I love talk about a lot on here: The acting. While Spiral actually has a good cast with no one actually turning in a bad performance, the film ultimately belongs to its star, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. I had Bowyer-Chapman in a couple things prior to this, 2012's The Skinny, a dramedy revolving around a group of black queer friends, and, funny enough, the eighth season of American Horror Story, subtitled Apocalypse. This is the first time I've seen Bowyer-Chapman in a true lead role and, what do you know, he actually does a pretty good job with it! The character of Malik requires an actor able to create a large sense of interiority, as Malik is traumatized over a hate crime from his adolescence in which bigots beat his then-boyfriend to death. As well as trying to work on a writing about a professor, all while dealing with the horrors that unfold as the movie carries on. Bowyer-Chapman does just that, often conveying Malik's inner thoughts with his expressive face. The role also requires Bowyer-Chapman to deliver a lot of extreme emotions, including fear for his and his family's lives throughout, as well as sorrow when Aaron refuses to believe him that something is going on as well as accusing him of cheating when he's presented with photographs of Malik cheating with neighbor Matthew. Bowyer-Chapman shows a skill that I hope allows him to play more meaty parts in the future.

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman as Malik

I also think that the film is well shot by director Kurtis David Harder and cinematographer Bradley Stuckel. While I have not seen either of the men's previous credits, they give Spiral a mostly good visual style that's marked with numerous slow panning shots that often serve to highlight an item and create a sense of dread. I say mostly good, because there are certain scenes that are shot in the vein of a Saw sequel with lots of blurring and fast editing to convey the headspace of the character, in this case Malik as he realizes that his medication is being tampered with and he's being drugged. While I'm not a fan of this, I suppose the context allows for it. The rest of the cinematography is great though, with one particular shot that really stands out being from a scene early on: Shortly after dinner with Kayla, we see Malik and Aaron having a conversation about the move and their hopes for their new environment. The way the scene is framed, we see Malik's in the doorway, while Aaron is blocked off through a window framing. It's not too dramatic of a scene, but it's a great way to show the film's audience the dynamic of Malik and Aaron's relationship without having the characters say anything.

Where the film's weakest points come in is its screenplay: Written by Colin Minihan and John Poliquin, the screenplay is fine, but there are some shortcomings. These do not include the implications that there are more extensive components to the antagonists' plans, however, as I'm certain we don't see more of that due to budgetary limitations. What I'm referring to is the nature of the Aaron character: Throughout the film, it seems as if he's being set up as another villain and in on the ultimate plan that Malik is trying to decipher. However, nothing ever comes of that and he ultimately just comes off as a somewhat gullible asshole who we don't really get to know. The screenplay also breezes over certain plot points, such as the aforementioned discovery of photographs of Malik and Matthew. The photographs imply that Malik, who proclaims his innocence and we later learn is being drugged, was potentially sexually assaulted by Matthew. Yet the film never addresses this potential violation again, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It also doesn't do much to address the potential racism Malik would face, aside from one scene where neighbor Tiffany mistakes him for Aaron's gardener. While I understand the film wants to tackle homophobia, it should've done at least a little more to address the intersectionality that comes with Malik.

Overall, despite the screenplay lacking in certain areas, Spiral is still a good, bleak, queer thriller with style and a great starring turn from Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, one that's worth seeking out on Shudder now.

Malik, making a most disturbing discovery...

No comments: