Creating a film in the genre of psychological thriller is more delicate than most types of flicks. The writers have to achieve a balance on the fine line of scaring the audience while letting the characters be human enough to connect with the audience. No one was better than this than the late, great Alfred Hitchcock and every director who has followed has used some of his techniques in their own works. The most important thing in this sort of movie is to build the anticipation in the audience. We have to be pulled into the story and care about the characters and given ample evidence that some dire circumstances are about to befall them. In the latest independent movie ‘Spiral’ Joel Moore manages to provide a film that may not be as good as the master but it is amply satisfying. Unlike many Indy films that are the brainchild of an individual this one is a collaborative effort. Moore had a hand in both writing and directing but he had help. In the script department he was joined by Jeremy Danial Boreing, this being the first feature film scrip for both men. Sharing the director’s chair with Moore is Adam Green who has several independent flicks under his belt including the recent horror flick, ‘Hatchet’ where he performed every chore from writer to director and producer. Keeping things in the family Moore also had the leading male role in that flick. The reason why this group project works as well as it does is this group are friends and have had years of practice being creative together.
In this film Green and Moore prove they can do a lot more than straight horror. They avoid the typical gratuitous use of blood and gore and take the action into the minds of the audience. It is rare that a team can not only make a transition like this but do it well. All too often writers and directors try so hard to make a name in a particular genre that they become myopic in their viewpoint. Film makers like this get as type cast as any actor in a very specific type of movie. Green and Moore have widened their focus and endeavor to make really good films. Much of the impact and strength of this film comes from the trust Moore and Green have in their actors. Many of their contemporaries try to over direct or over writer a movie. It is something special to see a team writer for the talents of their cast instead of trying to force the story. Here the script sets up the scaffold for the support of the actors. It defines the world they live in but it is up to the cast not directorial camera tricks or special effects to present the plot. This is a creative team that deserves watching in the future.
The film starts with Mason (Joel Moore) walking in the rain towards a nice little diner. He stains in the downpour looking at a pretty blonde waitress who is chatting with some customers. Cut to Mason on the floor in some room, he phones a man, Berkeley (Zachary Levi) who is in bed with a young woman and tells him ‘I think I did something, something bad’. Berkeley blows Mason off; this does not seem like an isolated incident. The next morning Mason goes to his job. He works in a busy, cubical filled office as a telemarketer in an auto-insurance office. Others around him are chatting with coworkers or busy at their jobs but Mason enters as if he does not belong there; almost afraid to make any type of contact. Berkeley not only happens to be Mason’s only friend his is also his boss. He steps in front of Mason’s cubical and chews him out for being late even though he only lives two and a half blocks away. Berkeley loosens his tie and shifts into friend mode saying he must be tired because he was awakened in the middle of the night. Mason appears to be functional even good at what he does. While in the middle of a call he notices some dried blood on his wrist and runs off to the bathroom.
During his lunch break in a little plaza outside the office Mason looks at some sketches he made of a young woman, the one he was staring at in the coffee shop. A young woman, Amber (Amber Tamblyn) sits down next to Mason and asks Mason who the pretty girl in the picture is. Amber is friendly and tries her best to make small talk with Mason but he is too withdrawn and concerned over what may have happened last night. Finally he opens up to her just a little bit saying he doesn’t draw he sketches, he’s a painter. That night Mason has a nightmare about the waitress holding her arms out to him; he awakens startled and shaken. The next day at lunch Mason sees Amber sitting alone and crying. He goes over to her and Amber tells her that her supervisor has just told her she is not cut out for sales; she has had the job less than a week. Slowly the two become friends and Mason seems better able to talk to her. At night Mason is disturbed by dreams of sketching the waitress Diana (Annie Neal) and during the day he seems to look forward to seeing Amber. Eventually Amber agrees to pose for Mason. It seems that there is one particular pose that he favors, the model with her back to him looking over her shoulder. Things seem to progress in their relationship but Mason is holding back, he is afraid of something lurking just beyond his perception.
Apparently the division of director’s duties between Green and Moore was along very natural lines. Since Moore is in almost every scene Green was the on site director leaving Moore the behind the scenes jobs. This partnership works incredibly well here. Some may complain that this film is paced far too slowly. I have to vehemently disagree; it is perfect in the way it flows. A thriller is like a fine meal that has all the ingredients added and then requires sufficient time to simmer and blend. Some stories just can’t be rushed and this is one of them. The audience gets time to know the characters. The potentially disturbing nature of Mason is always there just beneath the surface. His dreams and visions are evident that something very bad is wrong here but when he is with Amber there is little of this darkness that shows. The directors give great latitude to their cast and with ample reason, they are great. This is not to say that Moore and Green just sat there and shouted ‘action’ and ‘cut’. They were there to support their cast with visual and auditory themes that enhance the overall mood. There is slow, smooth jazz throughout the film; the kind that can become frantic without notice. The setting is in Portland that enables the directors to juxtapose sunny days with rainy nights. This nicely sums up Mason’s mental state; he can hold it together during the day but at night the inner turmoil rains down on him.
Certainly many independent writer-directors like to cast themselves in their own films. After all if you can’t pass an audition with yourself something is very wrong. In the case of this film Moore just happens to be the best actor around for the role of Mason. He has a look that is hang-dog enough that he wouldn’t scare off a woman like Amber. He also looks like he is capable of any number of heinous acts. Moore is the typical quite man next door and we all know what that can mean. As far as supporting actors goes Zachary Levi is excellent here. He may be familiar to regulars of the Sci-Fi channel for his titular role in ‘Chuck’. He could have phoned in this part, the best friend of the disturbed main character. Rather than doing that Levi adds dimension to his part. He allows the superficial perspective of Berkeley to come down and show that he really does care about his friend. Amber Tamblyn has a career that so far has ranged from talking to God on television to running from horror flick psychos in flicks. This film demonstrates that this young woman has more talent that she has been allowed to show so far. The initial scenes opposite Moore were beautiful awkward. She played Amber as a friendly girl trying to make a job she is not suited for work out. She responds to the lost puppy in Mason and allows herself to become emotionally attached. Tambyln makes this difficult part her own and brings pathos and depth to it.
The film is available on DVD thanks to the folks over at Starz / Anchor Bay. They have been responsible for some of the best in independent films for awhile now. If your town lacks an art house be sure to keep your eye on their releases. The video is an anamorphic 1.78:1 with brilliant color balance and exceptional tonal qualities. The Dolby 5.1 has a sound field that is realistic and full. There is a making of featurette that is pretty typical. The other extra is great. It is a commentary track featuring Moore, Greene and Boreing as well as Tamblyn and Levi. For added measure the director of photography, Will Barratt, joins in the discussion. This is a film not to miss. It is a taut, well crafted movie that will hold your attention for every minute.