The horror anthology endures. It’s popularity may wane from time to time, but it always comes back. Over the last few years it’s been reinvigorated by the V/H/S series, but with those movies presently on pause (and with the less said about The ABCs of Death the better), it’s good to see the sub-genre in particularly rude health with Southbound.
Between it’s segments, directed by varying upcoming talents, Southbound strings together five interlocking stories of travellers who lose their way in the American desert. For each party, journeying south becomes a necessity that puts them in increasingly grave danger. But this is no xenophobic trip about the dangers of the Mexican border. The ‘south’ in question is of a more metaphorical, hellish variety.
The film’s brief opening sets up an air of dread and mystery which is surprisingly consistent throughout. Horror anthologies have a long and justified reputation of hitting peaks as regularly as troughs, but one of the more impressive things about Southbound is how easily it transitions from one nightmare to another, all the while maintaining a high level of quality. Despite it’s varying creators, this is a stylistically solid piece when looked at as a whole.
The stories themselves are all intriguingly enigmatic. This may frustrate some, as at no point during the journey does the viewer feel as though they have all the information. For many this may prove simply unfulfilling. All tease and no pay-off. But those delighted by mystery and things left unsaid will find plenty to appreciate. Hinted answers and nods to genre mainstays are the only hand holds the audience are afforded. It has the cumulative effect of feeling like you’re watching a dream; forever drifting, frustratingly formless, but gripping because of that interminable sense of entropy. There’s a futility to Southbound that makes it genuinely unnerving.
In brief then we hitch a ride with, respectively, a pair of blood soaked men being pursued by ghoulish reapers, only to find themselves stuck in a limbo of repeating gas stations; a broken down girl band who receive dubious help and even more dubious dinner from a family with a lot to hide; the riveting story of a buttoned-down man who accidentally runs over a girl in the middle of nowhere and the increasingly dubious advice he receives on a 911 call; a man searching for his lost daughter in the most heinous of towns; and a home invasion story that conceals an at least part-way unifying secret (and goes to show why masks and horror continue to go hand-in-hand).
Subtitled “The Way Out & The Way In”, that opening and closing salvo comes from V/H/S alumni Radio Silence. And while it’s closed-circuit road is reminiscent of several tall tales of sci-fi (not to mention the virtually name-checked and visually referenced Lost Highway), the CG reapers pursuing the story’s central pair are a nifty piece of design work, albeit far more effective at a distance than up close. The following “Siren” features a host of fresh young faces (including Fabianne Therese, supporting player in last year’s excellent Starry Eyes), but things get even more interesting behind the camera. Roxanne Benjamin and Susan Burke are welcome additions to horror’s clubhouse (their section is also edited by Jason Eisener of Hobo With A Shotgun fame). They take silver this time out, however.
Southbound‘s most gripping section (as already intimated) is “The Accident”, brainchild of David Bruckner who was also responsible for the first V/H/S film’s clear highlight “Amateur Night”. Between these shorts and his work on The Signal from 2007, it’d be very interesting to see what he could achieve with a whole feature to himself. In front of the camera Mather Zickel evokes great empathy in this middle story, really selling the situation even as it becomes increasingly bizarre. And who doesn’t love a creepy hospital? Patrick Hovarth rounds out the talent with “Jailbreak”, and if his entry is the least of what’s on offer, it is by no means a failure, stirring up the sweaty feel of a dirty western.
Together these intriguing half-stories defy their lack of resolution. Southbound runs the risk of seeming to have been only partly conceived, but the assured nature of each installment, the confidence on the screen and the unifying themes of redemption and misplaced trust somehow solidify everything. As an experience it is like being lost in limbo, and the way in which that is enjoyably evoked outstrips the nags of the (many) open questions it leaves in its wake.
More than the sum of its parts? That might be a little much. But tonally it’s there. And the parts themselves are fine endorsements for all involved. Let’s hope this one really kick starts some careers.