Producers: Colin Minihan,  Kurtis David Harder and John Poliquin   Director: Kurtis David Harder   Screenplay:  Colin Minihan and John Poliquin   Cast: Jeffrey Bower-Chapman, Ari Cohen, Jennifer Laporte, Ty Wood, Lochlyn Munro, Chandra West, Paul McGaffey, Thomas Elms, Aaron Poole, Darius Savon and Jaron Melanson  Distributor: Shudder

Grade: C

It’s a tried-and-true horror premise: newcomers to a seemingly idyllic town learn that things are far from what they seem.  The idea is operative in Ted Geoghegan’s “We Are Still Here” (2015), but you can go way back to find other examples, like Larry Cohen’s “A Return to Salem’s Lot” (1987). 

Still, familiarity needn’t be an automatic disqualification, and in “Spiral” Colin Minihan and John Poliquin have given the plot some twists that, when coupled with solid direction from Kurtis David Harder and an able cast, almost make it work again, though it falls shy of crossing the finish line a winner.

The unorthodox family that comes to the small town in 1995 is a gay, biracial couple, Aaron (Ari Cohen) and Malik (Jeffrey Bower-Chapman), along with Aaron’s teen daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte).  Aaron is the breadwinner, Malik the homebody writer.  Kayla will attend high school and do what teens do.

At first there are some vaguely disquieting moments.  An elderly neighbor named Reinhart (Paul McGaffey) initially acts standoffish, but also issues a warning about their house; then he dies suddenly, leaving his distraught grandson Matthew (Thomas Elms) to seek consolation from them.  And while Marshal and Tiffany (Lochlyn Munro and Chandra West), the couple that lives across the street, are welcoming enough, something in their manner seems slightly off.  Their handsome, outgoing son Tyler (Ty Wood), however, bonds easily with Kayla. 

But for Malik, who’s still traumatized by a gay-bashing incident he experienced with a previous lover (flashbacks are periodically provided), more serious problems arise.  He finds a homophobic slur written on the wall of their home, but obliterates it so as not to disturb Aaron and Kayla.  And that’s only the beginning of what he begins to perceive as some sort of organized cult activity that might be targeting them.  He becomes increasingly frantic about the danger, though Aaron says that he’s exaggerating.

Malik doesn’t realize how bad matters are, however, until someone interferes with his computer—a machine that looks pretty much like an antique today—to make it appear that he’s been unfaithful to Aaron.  The resultant split-up leads him to investigate the town’s history and conclude that there are very sinister goings-on there every ten years.  When he resorts to violence to avert disaster from befalling Aaron and Kayla, the forces he’s fighting—which, as it turns out, are broader in scope than one might expect—may be too powerful to overcome, though a coda indicates he’s hopeful about making a difference.

The horror is more implied that explicit in “Spiral,” though there’s one scene that’s meant to be shockingly disgusting (it’s undermined, though, by pretty cheesy handmade effects).  And while Bower-Chapman doesn’t eschew playing to the gallery in the latter stages, he does anchor the film as the audience’s surrogate.  The rest of the cast is okay, and in the cases of Laporte and Wood more than that, while veteran Munro tones does his usual exuberance to convey a sense of understated menace.  This is obviously a low-budget piece, but the craft contributions—Matthew Cars well’s production design and Bradley Stocker’s cinematography, are competent, while the editing, credited to Harder and Minihan, is a mite sluggish in the first half but picks up speed in the second.  Avery Kentish’ score emphasizes the ominous, at times to excess.

Neither terribly scary nor particularly surprising, this is a medium-grade horror movie, and the addition of some shallow social commentary isn’t enough to make it more than mediocre.