Review: Antebellum, plus Shudder Original Spiral

Two new films drop this week, both featuring relevant political subtext. Antebellum, the Deep South chiller starring Janelle Monáe, and Spiral, a psycho-thriller dealing with LGBTQ issues in ’90s America. Are both worthy of checking out? Read on and find out!

In Antebellum, Monáe stars as successful author Veronica Henley whose life seems perfect in every way. That is until one day she seemingly wakes up in the Antebellum South as a slave. Has Veronica slipped into a time vortex, or is it all some sort of elaborate dream she can’t wake up from?

I’m going to be very brief with my review of Antebellum: it’s a tricky film not to spoil. But I can say that as a film that delivers a political message it does so quite well, especially during the current political landscape. As a horror movie, it’s mostly effective. Of course, the movie is more in line with a psychological thriller, although its broad marketing tag, “From the makers of Get Out and Us,” is really pushing towards the horror fam community.

The screenplay, by directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, is clever and never totally predictable, and even builds some decent suspense during the climax. Monáe gives an intriguing performance in what is essentially dual roles, and Jenna Malone, as a mysterious woman who may hold the key to the puzzle, is deliciously nasty. American Horror Story regular Gabourey Sidibe is disappointingly wasted in a small role.

One of the cinematic victims of the COVID pandemic, Antebellum was originally to be released last April but is now getting a VOD release. It’s definitely worth checking out on one of these quiet, quarantine nights.

Queer horror Spiral offers up Roman Polanski-esque paranoia. Set in the mid-1990s, the film features same-sex couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) who move out of the city and into a quiet, suburban neighborhood in order to raise their annoying teen daughter, Kayla (Jennifer Laporte). Things seem serene at first, but after a series of cold brush-offs from the neighbors and a hate slur is spray-painted inside their house, Malik starts questioning their choice in destination. Are the locals conspiring against Malik and his family, or is it all paranoid fear drummed up from a violent hate crime from Malik’s past that left someone dead?

Written by Colin Minihan (who wrote the fun cult fave Grave Encounters) and John Poliquin, Spiral gets points for trying to bring more to the table than just meat and potatoes. Its presentation of being true to yourself, sexual identity in ’90s America, and the strain such politics can have on the psyche is a refreshing change of pace, even if the approach at exploring such psychology is presented as rather ham-fisted.

Unfortunately, Spiral is way too scattered and unfocused to be an effective suspense mystery. Elements from everything from Rosemary’s Baby to Get Out overrun the already overly complicated plot, and by the time we get to the over-the-top ending the overall effect is rendered moot.

Antebellum is available to watch through Lions Gate VOD on September 18. Spiral is currently streaming on Shudder.

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