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NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL
Review: RJ Bland
What is folk horror? Well, they tend to encompass a whole host of tropes and elements but a rural setting, a link to old traditions/superstitions/religions and the antagonists being the people that reside in the central location are the predominant hallmarks of these films. While most of us think of titles such as The Wicker Man and The Witchfinder General, it is a sub genre that has been undergoing a bit of a revival of late with films such as The Ritual, Midsommar and The Hole in the Ground all flying the folk horror flag in more recent times. At their core these films tend to be about someone (or a group) venturing into a place where they are outsiders and where this fact puts them at risk. Kurtis David Harder's sophomore feature, Spiral, is the latest addition to this clutch of films.
It's the mid 90s, and couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) are moving to the middle of nowhere with Aaron's teenage daughter Kayla in tow. However, any fantasies they had that they had moved to a rural idyll are soon dashed by the locals. You see, Malik is black. And gay. Not the type of person that is apparently welcome in this part of the world. A strange old man keeps staring at Malik and one night someone breaks in and grafittis horrid messages on the walls. Malik installs a home security system to try and catch who is responsible but things take another turn when one night he sees a gathering of his neighbours in the house opposite – and they're behaving very strangely. Is the previously traumatised Malik a victim of paranoia and delusion – or is there something more sinister going on? Malik tries to get to the bottom of it all...
Spiral is a film that revels in creating a world of paranoia and mistrust. When you have a slightly unreliable narrator as the central protagonist (Malik), it's difficult to feel like you've ever got a firm grasp on what is really going on. Many films have done this, to varying degrees of success. What Lies Beneath, Fight Club, Shutter Island and perhaps most famously Rosemary's Baby all maintain their sense of intrigue and mystery this way. Depending on your disposition, it can either make for a panic inducing but satisfying viewing experience or a thoroughly frustrating one. Spiral is much more the former than the latter, although there are times late on that it starts to feel a bit too untrustworthy.
Despite it's LBGTQ angle, Spiral doesn't really offer up anything terrible new in terms of plot. We've seen this kind of thing before. Family move to new house, the neighbours are a bit odd and it isn't long before weird/scary/troubling stuff starts to go down. However, Kurtis David Harder scatters enough jumps and scares throughout to keep us interested and also does a solid job of creating a real sense of quiet unease from the first moment our protagonists arrive at their new house in the country. Much like Jordan Peele's Get Out, the residents of Malik's new town all present themselves as forward thinking liberals but you always get the sense that there is something simmering away under the surface. The combination of paranoia and mistrust underpins pretty much all of the action here and it isn't until very, very late in the day that the films shows its hand. The conclusion is rather sudden but it includes a rather jaw-dropping image that is hard to shake.
Although it's not initially clear who the central protagonist is going to be, Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman soon assumes the mantle and he is really quite excellent as the intuitive yet fragile Malik. He's proud of his sexuality and identity but every day he spends in his new home sees this desire to stand up for what he believes in is replaced by terror and fear. The script by Colin Minihan & John Poliquin (the guys who made Grave Encounters) is sensitive and allows the audience to properly empathise with him and also does a sound job of gradually increasing the tension and anxiety.
The film is guilty of some classic horror tropes that feel rather worn at this point. Yes, we know it's set in the 90's but the microfiche exposition dump has been done a hundred times before and is always a pretty lazy (but admittedly easy) way of filling in the audience. It's the pre 2000 equivalent of a google search. It also feels a little unfocused at times and there are story threads and ideas that feel underdeveloped or unfinished. However, Bowyer-Chapman's central performance and an effective mix of the uncanny and paranoia, it's going to satisfy most genre fans.
Despite it's mid 90's setting, Spiral is a folk horror that explores themes that are very much relevant to today. It doesn't offer anything particularly new or inventive, however the uneasy atmosphere and empathetic lead mean that it still makes for a tense and largely satisfying viewing experience.
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