By ROCCO THOMPSON
Shudder Original SPIRAL (2019) tells the story of Mailk (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen), an interracial same-sex couple who relocate to a small town with their teenage daughter, only to discover that the burg’s friendly facade obscures a dark history. With an incisive script exploring scapegoating and bigotry through a contemporary horror lens, SPIRAL has emerged as a buzzy addition to what we can only hope is a blossoming queer horror moment. A collaborative endeavor by director Kurtis David Harder (Incontrol) and co-writers Colin Minihan (It Stains the Sands Red, What Keeps You Alive) and John Poliquin (Grave Encounters 2), SPIRAL is the latest feature from Minihan’s Digital Interference Productions, under which the trio of Canadian triple-hyphenate writers/producers/directors have flourished. Harder, Minihan, and Poliquin sat down with Rue Morgue to discuss their collaborative process, how SPIRAL aims to inspire introspection in the viewer, and where the horror genre itself is headed.
The three of you are very collaborative, what’s the working relationship like?
KDH: We’re just a group of directors that all produce for each other. It’s kind of like this rotating group of creatives…
CM: You get a movie, I get a movie! You get a movie, I get a movie! I think that, creatively, we all have different strong suits and we all have different voices as filmmakers, which makes it unique. They’re all kind of done under the production company that I started when I made Grave Encounters in 2011. I’ve been a writer on all of the films, so I think that there’s always…it kind of starts with an idea and then the other voices take it over.
SPIRAL was in the hopper for a while. What made you pull the trigger on getting it made?
CM: I think it was just a movie that lived in the now and needed to be made.
JP: And it’s only become more relevant since we shot it about two years ago. The script was a reaction to the election in 2016, and Trump’s divisive rhetoric, and how he was totally stirring up his base: using otherness and scapegoating as ways to feed his agenda to find power. If you’ve taken a sociology class or studied history, that’s been used since humankind has been around, but it just felt really out in the present. Colin and I were [wondering], how do we take that concept and make an allegory for that through a horror film?
CM: I think we wanted to write a movie that felt like a conventional thriller-horror setup, a family with a kid moving to a new town, but find a way to really flip it on its head. Seeing it through the lens of an interracial gay couple was obviously a unique perspective that audiences hadn’t really seen, so that was a driving force.
How did the directing job fall to Kurtis?
CM: Well, I thought Kurt’s voice and his style would work really well for it, from a technical standpoint…and the kind of dreary tone that the movie has.
KDH: I think, in terms of themes and exploration, I love movies that kind of dive into dissent. I like exploring identity, and the script really leaned into that. That was kind of Malik’s journey. Movies like Jacob’s Ladder (1990) have always been big favorites of mine, so it kind of lined up.
Were there any other films that you looked to for inspiration?
KDH: From a visual standpoint, Super Dark Times (2017) was a big one that me and the cinematographer looked at in terms of kind of the vibe we wanted.
CM: I was always probably pushing Arlington Road (1999) on you. “Be more like Arlington Road!”
KDH: Yeah, movies like that, where it’s exploring the mistrust of your own senses, and where you’re not sure what’s real and what’s a figment of your imagination or your trauma.
How much input did Colin and John have once the script was finished and in Kurt’s hands?
KDH: They were on set for most of the shoot, I think. JP brought a lot of levity and the realness between Malik and Aaron from his own relationship.
JP: I’d say it was definitely a collaborative set experience and we were there throughout the entire production.
CM: We all have the shared common goal of making a great film. It can obviously be an area where you don’t want to be stepping on each other’s toes and you don’t want the film to feel like it has multiple voices at the helm. You want it to feel as if it has that singular vision of a director. I think that it’s important to respect that, but in this case, John’s the gay guy of us three. So, having him there, especially for Jeffrey, to be able to get inside his head on a whole other level really helped.
John, there’s a lot of talk today about queer stories needing to be told by queer voices. Was there a weight on your shoulders being the “gay guy” of this group and telling this particular story?
JP: Absolutely, when it came to certain things on set. There are definitely a lot of my experiences, and the experiences of people within my community, that I put into the script. That was why I was paying super close attention because I did want to make sure that authenticity came through. I think it landed in a really authentic place.
Have you been pleased with the audience response?
CM: I feel like we’ve been getting a lot of love, especially from people in the queer community, and that, to me, was my biggest worry. I know when we were writing the script, there was a lot of internal debate whether the ending should go as bleak as it does, or if there should be a Get Out (2017) ending.
JP: I think we talked about a hundred different happy endings for this thing. But I really think that the story sort of takes over, the script wants to complete itself, and it tells you how it wants to end. When you start to push against [that], it starts to feel a little less organic. Kurt actually had the idea that we had to end with an element of hope, so, in post-production, I whipped up a monologue that plants a message that hopefully the cycle will be broken eventually.
Kurtis, how do you feel about the ending that made it to screen?
KDH: Like they were saying, we were playing around with how to end the thing, because you want to be truthful about the situation, and the current climate is not a great place. You’re talking about generational growth. That was a big thing that we talked about, that the kind of sacrifices we make now pave the way for a better tomorrow. Even though Malik doesn’t win, it’s a bigger battle that we, as in society, are facing. Even though it is bleak, it’s kind of about that taking of the next step.
“I see horror movies being even more bold in the future, and really willing to take a stance.”
You three have been very involved in horror since the start of your careers. Where do you feel that the genre is headed?
CM: There’s definitely a big movement for horror films that are saying something, whether it be a social message, some sort of a commentary, or an allegory, and I think that’s exciting.
JP: Yeah. I mean, the horror genre has always done this. I think a movie like SPIRAL is obviously very overt in its messaging, and that’s really intentional. We just didn’t want what we’re ultimately saying to be totally lost, which I think often happens when you try to bury your theme or your metaphor too much in the sauce of what makes the film. I see horror movies being even more bold in the future, and really willing to take a stance. I think that the framework of society as it moves forward really changes what people are interested in writing. I’m sure we’ll see a lot of movies about isolation and loneliness as a result of this pandemic.
It’s 2020, and some filmmakers are really attempting to kickstart a long-overdue queer horror movement, but it feels as if What Keeps You Alive and Spiral are the only two movies to break through in the past few years. Can you speak on that?
KDH: Well, that’s interesting, I think that says a lot. It’s still hard from a financial perspective overseas, because some countries are so far behind that it’s a struggle balancing the creative and the commerce of an independent film. If you can’t sell half the world because you’re making an LGBT film, that will invariably scare producers away from doing it, because they’re not going to recoup the bottom line of the movie. My hope is that [eventually] people can feel a lot more secure in investing and spending money making these kinds of films and they can have a life abroad as well, which is very important for any independent movie.
What do you hope viewers take away from Spiral?
CM: I grew up in a really small town and for me, on set, shooting just a very simple scene where Malik and Aaron share a kiss in the kitchen was incredibly powerful. A lot of people from small communities who haven’t had that kind of thing normalized to them, I want [those] people to see two men together as a couple and be okay with it. Horror movies can normalize that if we start to make films that star LGBT characters, and are hopefully played by LGBT actors as well. But I think that there’s a large chunk of America that just doesn’t like what they don’t know. If you can just get to know it, you’ll be okay with it.
JP: I think representation is key with this film. There aren’t a lot of genre films that portray queer characters in this more grounded light. Typically, they’re either very campy films or they’re played for laughs, the queer characters. To me, that’s an important statement: the film, by just existing, is huge.
CM: Yeah, it’s a shift. Obviously, we’re probably going to be preaching to the choir when it comes to a lot of people that are going to be clicking play on this movie as soon as they read the synopsis. But I hope that some people that are genre fans or that don’t know, maybe they’re thinking they’re about to watch the new Saw movie. They turn it on and I hope they watch the whole film anyway!
That wasn’t part of the plan, huh?
CM: Absolutely not!
JP: We had the title way before. We had the title for like four years!
KDH: I feel like we hung out with the writer and then two weeks later, fucking…their movie is called Spiral!
JP: But anyway, what I hope is that somebody watching this one can kind of zoom out and be like, “Oh, wow, yeah. This metaphor for this cult is kind of… I can see how I might be somewhat complicit.” Maybe some people will take that away, and hopefully become a bit more woke. I mean, it’s a big ask, but that would be my ideal takeaway in that this can at least change their minds.
CM: Movies can change some feelings, JP! I believe it.
SPIRAL is streaming now, exclusively on Shudder.