The moral of this story seems to be that being gay and Black is hard, and especially when there’s a magical murder cult.
Spiral is a 2019 Canadian horror movie set in Alberta, not to be confused with the ninth Saw movie, which isn’t set in Alberta (and is therefore less scary). It’s about Jeffrey Boyer-Chapman and his husband moving to a small town and experiencing homophobia and also cultic murder.
This review is going to contain spoilers for Spiral, a movie you haven’t seen and probably weren’t planning to see.
The basic premise is what I said above. Malik, played by Jeffrey Boyer-Chapman of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame, moves to a small town in Alberta with his husband and their daughter. There, he experiences homophobic violence and is gaslit into believing that it’s all in his head, but also there’s a ghost and he becomes convinced that there’s a murder cult. Which he’s right about, and then everyone dies.
I’ll start with the positives of this movie, to be fair. The acting is good all around. I wasn’t expecting Boyer-Chapman to be good at acting, but he was, actually. He did a really good job transitioning from the smarmy gay loud and proud gay stereotype to the sort of unhinged, drugged paranoid delusional writer, and his emotional range as he was ghostwriting the book about conversion therapy was really well done. The other actors all did really well too, not necessarily the most stellar cast ever but they were definitely solid and generally sold their performances.
Also on the positive note is that Alberta is pretty, which is the only thing Alberta has going for it. In a very stark, open away, the scenery is really nice. The filming location was really well chosen, especially because the horrible pre-fab housing that interrupts the landscape really gives the viewer the impression of a cancerous suburbia that is what the movie wants to get across (even though it’s clearly set in a small town, not a suburb, while constantly evoking suburban imagery and claiming suburban heritage). The 90s vibe of the movie is well done without being annoying, which is a hard balance to strike, or at least it seems to be. Movies prefer to go the “a character has gone to a Blockbuster and/or a Radio Shack, look at all his plaid and frayed jeans” route with representing the 90s, which is boring. This movie gets across the time period through dress and music and car styles without having to have someone wax poetic about the Spice Girls or something, so I liked that.
There weren’t really any parts of the movie that I actively didn’t like, but there were a lot of parts that were mediocre. The mediocre parts were the parts where there was writing, plot or dialogue, but especially that first thing. I just don’t think the writers really pulled together what they were trying to pull together, to be honest. In Cal’s words, they wanted for “this to be a queer Get Out,” and I don’t know if that’s totally true but it’s definitely the vibe I got, and it didn’t quite work in my opinion. Most of the movie is just Malik thinking something is up and not being sure, and nothing that dangerous or bad really happening, just some vaguely disturbing homophobia. The thing is, because of the way the movie is framed as being about specific social issues, you know that they’re not going to go the route of having the gay Black main character just be delusional and crazy, so the audience knows there’s something up, and so that tension doesn’t work and just becomes tedious while you wait for Jeffrey Boyer-Chapman to act his way through a series of sad moments to discover what’s really happening. And then when it does turn out to be an immortal organ-eating murder cult, it’s a bit unsatisfying, because that’s what you assumed it was in the first like ten minutes.
I think the writers would have been better off playing up Malik’s possible hallucinations/delusional state earlier on. It becomes clear about halfway through the movie that everything he’s seeing isn’t necessarily happening, but if that had been right in the foreground and his husband had said after the first incident, “oh, you’re probably literally hallucinating, did you take your meds?” or something would really have played up the possibility that it was all in Malik’s head, rather than introducing that concept fifteen minutes before it’s revealed that there really is a murder cult. Malik periodically talks to his ex-boyfriend throughout the movie, who is heavily implied to be dead, which is an early flag that he’s hallucinating, but that flag isn’t recognizable until halfway through, so it doesn’t do anything for his characterization particularly. If that had been a stronger element, that alone would have helped the movie make a lot more sense. And yes, the “mentally ill person who experiences delusions is actually right this time” trope has been done to death, but so has the “the real monster is homophobia” trope, and they’re equally as not-interesting, so why not pick one that makes your story work?
Especially since there are so many moments that kind of rely on the characters knowing they’re in a narrative and expecting narrative conventions to protect them. Which is to say there are several ass pulls in this movie that, if you think about them for two seconds, don’t really make sense. Basically the residents of this town kill some marginalized people every ten years so they can remain immortal, and scapegoat them for their own murders because they’re marginalized so nobody will care, which fine. But why do some marginalized people move to the town exactly every ten years? There’s no indication that they’re lured there or anything, but even though they have a defined pattern (couple and teenage daughter), it just seems like they randomly decide of their own accord to show up in Cult City just in time to get murdered every ten years. Malik figures this out because he’s given a list of dates, and he arbitrarily decides to read newspapers from the town on those dates, which doesn’t seem like a logical assumption to make, and he finds records of those murders in the local newspaper, which also doesn’t make sense, because if the murders were the work of a town-wide immortal murder cult, then why publicize them in the newspaper and archive it so anyone could find the information later on? Why not just cover the whole thing up, since the whole conceit is that nobody’s going to care what happens to some queer people or non-White people?
Malik also does that thing that people do in movies where he doesn’t convey any of the information he’s learning to anyone. Like, he argues with his husband about how the town is a murder cult, but instead of giving him any of the literal evidence he has of this, he just tells him that the town is vaguely dangerous and they have to leave over and over again, and of course isn’t believed. But at the same time that this is happening, the movie’s epilogue tells us, he had time to write out a (presumably) coherent document outlining all his evidence and burning it onto a CD that he hides in his house (at some point? Despite being kicked out of the house) so that the next people in ten years can find it, even though he thinks he’s going to save his daughter and husband (he doesn’t) from the murder cult.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s one of those movies where the message matters more than the plot, and sure, the message is good. It’s hard to be gay and Black, and racism and homophobia are the real evils all along, etc. But for me, that message is diluted a little bit by the movie’s insistence that there is an actual immortal murder cult out there, and diluted further by the refusal to properly commit to that or to the mental illness storyline it had going on.
Spiral is fine. If you like vaguely psychological horror you’ll probably think it was fine. I thought it was fine. Don’t rush to watch it; it’s not the best movie ever. But it’s fine.
They never did do anything with the weird ghost girl who kept showing up, though.