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Review by Ally Russell

When same-sex couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) move to a small suburban town with their 16-year-old daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), they hope the new home will give them a chance to relax and resolve some underlying family drama. However, their dreams of a quiet life spiral downward as the family is plunged into a toxic and paranoia-inducing environment that is rife with homophobia and the occult.

We follow the story through Malik’s eyes—a character with whom we immediately empathize as flashbacks reveal that he was the victim of a hate crime. This crime has left Malik vulnerable and on a daily diet of medication, but it doesn’t define him. He is also the peacekeeper in his home, and instead of the tired evil step-parent trope, we’re treated to a warm stepfather-stepdaughter relationship between Malik and Kayla, whom he affectionately calls Booger. However, as the short winter days turn to long nights in a cold and unfamiliar landscape, Malik’s sanity is compromised and his sense of time warped.

Whenever a film presents sinister neighbors as villains, I immediately think of Rosemary’s Baby—a film that expertly explores the theme of living and being at home amongst people who make you uncomfortable. Spiral (directed by Kurtis David Harder) may not dissect the subject of strange neighbors with as much precision, but the same way that Rosemary’s Baby made viewers want to abandon urban apartment buildings, Spiral will make viewers question the safety of the suburbs.

For viewers looking for that Get Out (2017) ambiance, Spiral mostly delivers on that mood. In addition to the microaggressions that Black characters are often forced to silently endure, Malik has the added weight of tackling homophobia in his new community and in his home. This Get Out atmosphere is most prominently felt when we are confronted with Malik’s work as a ghost writer—a job that requires him to listen to a doctor espouse hateful views about gay conversion therapy and the importance of the “traditional family unit” via grainy VHS tapes. While these scenes effectively convey homophobia as a driver for the horror elements in the film, I do wonder if the LGBTQIAA community is exhausted with watching this kind of trauma unfold on screen.

The film is compelling and creepy, but it’s not perfect. Additional details about the significance of the occult symbols and ritual practices would have yielded a more complete story and left me with fewer questions. However, the film does an excellent job of adeptly highlighting one unequivocal fact: humans will always find something to fear.

Spiral is a dark and brooding horror film that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate some of its more subtle storytelling, but with each watch, viewers will unearth information that they may not have noticed before.

Spiral is available on Shudder.

AllyRussellAbout the writer: Ally Russell has a ghastly passion for horror writing. She has created podcasts episodes and written content for the Horror Writers Association’s Young Adult & Middle Grade blog, Scary Out There, and has written for Night Worms and reviewed horror films for Out of the Past and She also hosts the FlashFrights podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud. Ally holds an MFA in writing for children from Simmons University. When her childhood dreams of becoming a full-time witch didn’t work out, she settled for a career in publishing. She lives in Boston but hails from Pittsburgh—ground zero for the zombie apocalypse. She can be found on Instagram at @OneDarkAlly.

Raquel’s thoughts: Get Out meets Rosemary’s Baby, Spiral demonstrates the horrors of othering in a way that is both modern and classic.


Review by Ally Russell

What happens if your virtual meeting room is haunted?

Host is a new Shudder original horror film about six friends who decide to hold a virtual séance using the popular video communication platform Zoom. As the group’s evening of entertainment quickly unravels into a night of terror, viewers are immersed in a found footage-style horror movie that shows the worst-case scenario when technology and the supernatural converge on a computer screen.

Filmed in the homes of the actors and directed from afar, Host was conceived of by director Rob Savage (Dawn of the Deaf, 2016), who collaborated with his producing-partner Jed Shepherd (Salt, award-winning short, 2018), producer Douglas Cox (Dawn of the Deaf, 2016), and writer Gem Hurley (Tin Foil) to craft the story and script. In his director’s statement, Savage credited his enthusiasm for found footage horror movies, specifically Unfriended (2014), for inspiring Host, but it was Savage’s recent Zoom prank that propelled the idea of the film that’s now streaming on Shudder.

Host is haunting, and it doesn’t waste time telling its scary story. There is no trivial dialogue or banter to introduce the characters. There is no music to lull you into the story. There are no intro credits because, after all, you’re just watching a free 40-minute Zoom session. Savage quickly familiarizes viewers with the group’s relationship dynamics and drama, and he grasps our short attention spans with speedy pacing and plenty of obligatory jump scares…and he does it in less than an hour.

The friends, played by Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louis Webb, Caroline Ward, Radina Drandova, and Edward Linard, have outstanding chemistry, which bolsters the film’s authenticity. For viewers, the experience is a bit uncanny because it feels like you’re zoom-bombing a private moment between friends. Savage attributes the harmony of the cast to their long standing friendships beyond the “set” of the film.

In addition to acting, it is worth noting that the actors operated their own cameras and assisted with their own lighting and practical effects. While all of the actors were stellar in their own roles, we must give Emma Louis Webb a special round of applause, because her genuine fear and panic are palpable on screen, and she does a lot of the emotional lifting toward the end of the film.

Host is an outstanding horror film because it doesn’t allow us to escape the terror of our current reality. This film is set in the present amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and every facet of the film—from the plot to the production—reminds us of that alarming fact. Why are these friends having a Zoom call instead of meeting up at someone’s house or a pub? Because they and we are in the middle of a pandemic. Why are they risking their spiritual and physically safety by holding a séance via Zoom even though, as their spiritual guide warns, the group will be “slightly less protected than they might have been”? Because of the pandemic. Why can’t they leave their homes to escape their frightening situations? Because pandemic. When two of the characters do come face-to-face, they greet each other by bumping elbows. Pandemic, pandemic, pandemic.

It’s difficult to go into detail about the plot without spoiling the fun of the film. So, for a fully immersive—and potentially haunting—experience, grab your laptop and just press play!

Host is best described as a fraught fifty-seven-minute thrill ride with Paranormal Activity (2007) meets Unfriended: Dark Web (2018) vibes.


Ally Russell occasionally creates content for the Horror Writers Association’s Young Adult & Middle Grade blog, SCARY OUT THERE, and she hosts the FlashFrights podcast on Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud. Ally lives in Boston and works at an independent children’s publisher. She enjoys talking about cryptids in her free time. She can be found on Instagram at @OneDarkAlly.

Slamdance: Big Fur

by Ally Russell

Big Fur chronicles World Champion Taxidermist Ken Walker’s attempt to build a believable Bigfoot replica—specifically the “Patty” from the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film, which shocked viewers back in 1967 when it showed an unidentified bipedal hominid walking along a riverbank in northern California. Home videos and interviews with Ken’s family, friends, and colleagues give viewers an intimate look at his personal life and beliefs, all while he builds his monstrous masterpiece in the background.

Director and producer Dan Wayne became interested in the subject of taxidermy because of its unique blend of art and science. It wasn’t until Dan met former Roy Orbison impersonator turned Bigfoot believer and Taxidermist Ken Walker that he decided to film a documentary to shine a spotlight on an underappreciated art form and its misunderstood artists. Not only did he spend five years researching, camping in the secluded wilderness, and filming Ken as he built Patty, but Dan also began practicing taxidermy. Big Fur is Dan’s first feature documentary, and it was made in collaboration with producer and award-winning writer and filmmaker Jon Niccum, and writer and editor George Langworthy, producer and director of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees (2009)—a project on which Dan also collaborated.

Ken Walker creates a life-sized Bigfoot in the feature documentary Big Fur. – Photo Courtesy Millennial PR
Ken Walker stands next to a tree structure, possibly built by Bigfoot, in the feature documentary Big Fur. – Photo Courtesy Millennial PR

For those looking for an intimate and educational look at the art and science of taxidermy, Big Fur covers the subject with extreme care and attention to detail. Skeptics beware—you’ll find no Bigfoot mockery in this documentary. Considering that the main subject of the film believes in Bigfoot (so fervently that he keeps not one but TWO bags of alleged sasquatch scat in his freezer), it was a bit of a disappointment that Ken never shared his encounters on screen. Its creators describe the film as a “comical portrait of an eccentric artist-hero.” Sure, there are funny moments—like Ken singing Hello! Ma Baby! while stomping around his workshop with two Styrofoam sasquatch legs—but other moments, like the revelation of a very questionable personal relationship with another subject featured in the film, feel tacked on and detract from the focus of the main storyline. Watching Ken build his rendition of Patty is certainly enjoyable, but the task lacks tension. Ken alludes to hurdles, but viewers don’t get to witness those hairy moments. Perhaps Big Fur’s most important subplot is its insightful commentary from author and naturalist Robert Pyle and retired outfitter and activist Mike Judd as they call for hunters and environmentalist to collaborate because of their mutual goal of preserving and protecting the wilderness from industry. Overall, Big Fur may lack tension and focus as it nears its conclusion, but the film is still a worthwhile watch for those with a healthy interest in taxidermy and cryptozoology.

A quiet and thoughtful film that heralds the importance of environmentalism, art… and Bigfoot. An enjoyable watch for Bigfoot believers, taxidermy enthusiasts, and environmentalists.

About the reviewer: Ally Russell occasionally creates content for the Horror Writers Association’s Young Adult & Middle Grade blog, SCARY OUT THERE, and she hosts the FlashFrights podcast on iTunes and SoundCloud. Ally lives in Boston and works at an independent children’s publisher. She enjoys talking about cryptids in her free time. She can be found on Instagram at @OneDarkAlly.

Big Fur is screening at the 2020 Slamdance Film Festival as part of their Documentary Features series. Learn more about this film by visiting the official website.

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