Lately, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman has pinged more radars as a reality competition judge than with roles on American Horror Story: 1984 and the reality show-skewering drama UnREAL. But there are no Drag Race queens or judging shenanigans to overshadow the actor’s solid performance in the tight psychological thriller Spiral (★★★☆☆).
Directed by Kurtis David Harder, the film throws a bone to viewers all along the Bowyer-Chapman spectrum. Savor JBC’s range throughout his ample screen-time as Malik, one half of an interracial gay couple, with Aaron (Ari Cohen), who moves with Aaron’s teenage daughter, Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), from “the city” to a remote, woodsy suburb. Or relish his distress, as Malik is gaslit into madness by mysterious forces beyond his control.
The vast, open landscape surrounding Aaron and Malik’s new hometown looks spectacular, and the comfy, multi-story house seems inviting, but the neighbors aren’t all so welcoming. Malik tries to defuse any perceived racial tension with light humor, and meets the silent hostility of next-door neighbor Mr. Reinhart (Paul McGaffey) head-on.
Neighbors Tiffany (Chandra West) and Marshal (Lochlyn Munro), on the other hand, seem all too eager to befriend the gay “fresh faces in the neighborhood.” It all feels off to Malik, who already has his guard up when he and Aaron start to hear things go bump in the night. Still, all the neighbors — except Reinhart — are so nice. Maybe Malik’s being overdramatic, Aaron suggests.
As horror (and Joseph Heller) fans know, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. That might also describe the history of Black people in America, so it’s no accident that Malik is the most triggered by the strange goings-on in this town where he’s the only person of color.
Indeed, someone does have their eyes on him and his family, with the movie implying but not showing much hidden in the woods outside, or in dark corners by the stairs. The movie doesn’t dispense many illuminating clues, letting the mysteries add up until finally hairpin cracks break open a flood of damning discoveries, and a conveniently monologuing villain.
Meanwhile, the one most visible indication that danger lurks among their neighbors sends Malik on indiscreet sleuthing expeditions inside other people’s homes, as his paranoia begets unhinged behavior, even visions. Terror and isolation appear to be the goal, and Bowyer-Chapman captures that emotion even when the script pushes Malik towards “no brother would ever” territory, once he decides not to report a frightening discovery that confirms his suspicions about being watched and targeted.
By some way of explanation, the film reveals through flashback that Malik is dealing with a history of trauma that could color his actions in the present. To its credit, Spiral closes that circle of trauma in the end on a macabre note, imagining a dark cloud of terror and isolation that reaches far beyond Aaron and Malik.
Spiral is available on AMC’s Shudder horror streaming platform, currently offering a 7-day free trial. Visit www.shudder.com.
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