If you've seen the horror flick Hatchet, you might have preconceived notions about filmmaker Adam Green, and therefore about Spiral, which he co-directed with Joel David Moore, and which screened at Fantastic Fest a year after Hatchet played there so successfully. But you'd be wrong -- this film has very little in common with the old-school horror of Hatchet. Spiral is an odd film, a combination of indie-relationship film and thriller that stands on the precipice of gory horror and threatens to dive into a potential bloodbath.
The action -- or the hint that action might occur -- focuses around Mason (Joel David Moore), an asthmatic painter with an almost pathological lack of social skills, who appears to be harboring some dark nasty secrets. He works in a dull insurance company, where his longtime best friend Berkeley (Zachary Levi) is his boss. As Mason sits at lunch, flipping through a book of sketches of a woman who has been haunting his dreams, another woman starts a conversation with him. Amber (Amber Tamblyn) also works in his building, and slowly makes friends with Mason. She agrees to pose for paintings that he sketches out beforehand. It all seems quite sweet, the awkward guy and the cute girl ... but what happened to his previous model, and what will he decide to do about (or with) Amber?
The tension of "is this going to end bloodily or isn't it" balances nicely with the relationship aspects of the movie, the shy and damaged guy who has to learn how to interact with a seemingly normal, All-American fresh-faced young woman who might have a romantic interest in him. On the other hand, you have to wonder what exactly Amber sees in Mason's abrupt, almost insulting manner, his borderline creepiness, and his edgy, almost pathological personality. Perhaps she's flattered to be painted by him (although I didn't think the paintings were so fabulous myself), but I was surprised she stuck around after certain scenes. It was a stretch of credibility.
Joel David Moore's performance is almost painful to watch at times -- this is no cuddly Napoleon Dynamite of a loser, but someone with a genuinely off-putting edge. But you can't drag your eyes away from this freakish guy and his nervous twitchiness. I liked Zachary Levi as Berkeley, who adds some depth to what is almost but not quite the stereotypical frat-boy supervisor, like Ron Livingston in Office Space if he'd crossed over wholeheartedly into management.
Spiral reminded me at times of a movie I saw at SXSW this year, He Was a Quiet Man, in which Christian Slater played another mentally unbalanced guy who might possibly be saved -- or unwound totally -- by the love of a good woman. In Spiral, however, Mason's past is more of a cipher, with shadowy events that obviously shaped his current emotional state. Spiral looks more realistic and radiates more suspense, and we know that if blood is ultimately shed, it will be horrifying rather than cartoonish. The movie's pace bogs down a little in the middle, and the ending has one too many twists, but Spiral is a refreshingly dark variation on the geek-guy love stories that have been populating the indie scene.