After Hatchet (2006), director Adam Green and actor Joel David Moore reteamed to collectively direct this extremely odd thriller that's either a deliberate attempt to circumvent genre clichés, or an imbalanced quirky suspense thriller that never settles into a specific tone, and meanders for stretches before any genuine menace makes its appearance during the last few reels.
Although the film's look and style recall late sixties thrillers fused with the measured, slower pacing from seventies thrillers that weren't always concerned with tight structure, part of Spiral's dilemma may lie in its origins as a short film script that was expanded into a feature, thereby giving the filmmakers more time to explore and indulge in character bits that prolong meaty suspense cues and key pieces of information tied to the film's otherwise clever hook of a disturbed artist who lures young women into his studio to pose for a series of paintings before some unspeakable vision mandates their demise.
That's certainly what the trailer sells in its own compact and formulaic narrative, but the actual film is a very different animal.
In what's a refreshing spin, the filmmakers transpose a cliquish high school environment to a nondescript insurance sales agency, where socially inept sales clerk Mason attracts the quirky, waifish Amber during a gazebo lunch break while their more generic colleagues eat in the lunch room. The parallels and satirical pokes aren't ill-conceived, but in playing up the cool kids vs. geeks theme, it allows co-director/co-writer/co-star Moore to create an impenetrable misfit who's barely able to utter more than a jumbled sentence to any coworker, let alone the clients he's supposed to interact with on the phone.
Mason's ability to remain gainfully employed is tied to his loyal and protective brother Berkeley (a walking phallus, played by co-executive producer Zachary Levi) who's helped him through cyclical breakdowns, and obfuscated his lousy sales quota, but Mason is such a social moron it's incredible to believe he's lasted this long, and only raises the suspicion of upper management during the film's final reel.
Moore also goes Method in maintaining his character's inner loser, yet he contrasts his labored mannerisms with an impeccably colour-coordinated wardrobe and a Spartan loft with clean, minimalist décor. Being a perfectionist painter might make it logical that the areas wherein he can mandate some control within his wonky mental sphere are colour, imagery, and sound, but Moore's characterization certainly challenges the popular cliché of maddened, impoverished painters whose art is the only venue wherein they can focus with precision and confidence.
There are regular dark shadings that play with our expectations as to whether Mason is a genuine killer, and some superb sound design really hammers home the character's demons that are always perched on his shoulders. The jazz score for the most part – a mix of original and source works – compliments the pastel colours the filmmakers apply to every set, location, and costume, although one shrill jazz cue meant to punctuate Mason's final descent into lunacy is rather bathetic, and conjures the wonkiness of Chris Martell's screeching (but fun) jazz score for Joseph Adler's deliciously bad Scream, Baby Scream (1969), an acid-tinged thriller in which a hack painter creates more three-dimensional art by rendering pretty girls into disfigured monsters.
The jazz cue elevates Mason's pivotal scene into Adlerian kitsch, and one tends to recall the struggling misanthropic artist in Roger Corman's 1959 black comedy, A Bucket of Blood: in place of a social boob who kills to create clay statures and enter the privileged cool people scene, Spiral has a misfit who must travel through each painting stage in order to achieve some kind of orgasmic catharsis and creative closure.
Co-director Green aims for a more polished thriller with implied gore and horrific subtext, but after a build up (both in the trailer and the film) towards the scene where Amber peeks at Mason's sketchbook and sees the pose that sends her running for her life, some might feel cheated that whatever gruesome act she's about to endure is left to our imagination.
(It may also have been a catch-22 where Green would've been forced to grovel in nasty violence, given Amber's horror-stricken visage implies the final pose requested by Mason must depict the after-effects of some unspeakable brutality. The twist finale somewhat makes up for the lack of spilt blood, but it also comes too late after a long opening third that works hard to justify why this quirky girl is determined to understand and involve herself with the company misfit. Writers Moore and Jeremy Danial Boreing also have a tough time convincing us how brother Berkeley, a misogynistic tool, can still remain employed when he openly harasses every shapely woman on his floor.)
The DVD commentary track gathers most of the key players in the film (Tamblyn leaves around the midpoint), and it's a fun and lively discussion of the production, the Oregon locations, the script nuances and oddball characters. The making-of featurette is the usual clips of cast and crew on location, and the accompanying trio of Cinefile promos from Starz Cinema, mostly comprised of cheeky onset clips edited into mini-production diaries that span the first and last days of filming, and final editing (including a short remark by Moore on trying to cut around one of several shots where the lighting was unintentionally glaring on the actors' faces).
Spiral is an intriguing alternative to Green's gore-heavy Hatchet, but its makers and numerous contributors never managed to realize a steady tone for what's presumed to be an offbeat thriller.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan