There is a particular sub-genre of horror film that I happen to be quite fond of, and which SPIRAL (2018) falls comfortably into: the “idyllic situation starts to seem weird and then gets progressively more horrible until everyone is either dead or insane” type. A close relative of the “is she seeing a monster or is she crazy?” genre but far less annoying, this variety of horror film uses psychological terror as its major weapon on a group of unsuspecting individuals to the point that their own neuroses become more threatening than whatever supernatural happening is at hand. Movies like THE DESCENT and THE THING are doubly horrifying because you’re fighting off friends and monsters at the same time.
SPIRAL begins somewhat inconspicuously with a group of guy friends returning to the middle of nowhere, Iowa for their friend’s bachelor party.
What follows is an admittedly intriguing foray into trust, guilt, and a very shady strip club with a timewarp voodoo drug den in the basement. While the film certainly drew me in and I had to keep watching, I eventually found myself torn between the distinct elements that I enjoyed during runtime and what I found frustrating after the credits rolled.
What I liked:
The acting. Everyone in SPIRAL brings their A-game, from Anthony Stratton as the uncomfortably invasive main character to Hays McEachern as his nemesis Will. It’s common in small indie features to debut relative unknowns, sometimes with disastrous results; but even the actors with few other credits to their name give believable portrayals of these twenty-something party boys accosted by bizarre happenings at a resort house. In particular, Michael Vlamis is irresistible as rich playboy Ryan — even as he does a lot of stupid sh-t and faces the consequences, you’re rooting for him to make it out somehow. That takes a lot of magnetism.
The cinematography. Stylistically, SPIRAL is incredibly hard to resist. Bizarre camera angles and quick-cuts combine to form a decidedly trippy experience, and there are a few shots that really made me sit back and go, wow, I’ve never seen this before. Case in point: a woman dances lazily around a stripper pole inside a club, and at least half of the moment is shot from below the transparent stage, looking up at her high heels as they twist. The film is full of shots like this, as well as sequences that skip wildly like a scratched record, which makes the more quiet moments feel all the more mesmerizing.
The soundtrack. Although the sound mixing in the screener I watched was a little off and the score seemed overbearing in comparison to the dialogue, the music itself is great: innovative but not so bizarre as to detract from the suspense. It’s a combination of big synth bass notes, staccato percussion, and eerie electronic waves, and in the case of a few scenes, does a better job at bringing home the terror than anything on screen.
What bugged me:
The character profiles. Watching SPIRAL felt a little like reading a Frank Miller comic book in that none of the major players are particularly good people — they’re straight rich dudebros with shallow problems. All the women are either strippers or monsters (or both). The main character, Ellis, is so incredibly snide in his sanctimonious condemnation of his housemates’ behavior that you almost want them all to gang up and kill him. If you’re looking for a role model, strong female characters, or even just a relatable rogue, then this is not the film for you. But again, like a Frank Miller comic book — or a brutal noir piece — the entire spectacle holds you in fast like a car wreck despite your disgust.
The ending. Although I could never expect a film like this to tie off its threads into a neat little bow, the plot elements of the latter half of the running time sort of fizzle out and feel scattered, like there are too many things happening at once. From a creepy old man who stares at things to a mysterious a corn maze to alien languages (with subtitles!), the third act has too many elements that don’t get the time to shine on their own and end up feeling like a disjointed mish-mash of typical horror imagery. The final sequence in particular is curiously trope-happy for a scene that appears to want to shock the viewer, and an underlying theme of time folding in on itself is ultimately too subtle to compete.
So, should you watch SPIRAL?
I say, sure. If you’re looking to be spooked, you’ll come away satisfied. If you love to solve bizarre mysteries, you’ll be chatting to your friends for a long time about what everything means, which is the mark of a good movie. Just be aware going in that SPIRAL is about a bunch of rich, indulgent douchebags. Don’t get too attached to anyone, and feel free to look elsewhere if you prefer more progressive or inclusive material.