This anthology horror by the makers of 'V/H/S' benefits from a strong thematic and visual core.
The news of yet another horror anthology coming out doesn’t inspire the same amount of excitement as it used to several years ago. The arrival of V/H/S, a fun blend of the anthology gimmick with found footage (the horror subgenre du jour), rejuvenated an interest in multiple directors collaborating on different, loosely connected short films. But now, after two V/H/S sequels, two ABCs of Death films, and with more “anthrillogies” on the way, the format is starting to get a bit tired again. That feeling must have been on the minds of the team behind Southbound, who also made V/H/S. They’ve gone in a different direction from their previous film, creating a more collaborative effort that intertwines Southbound’s five stories on both a narrative and thematic level. While the film can’t escape some of the inevitable issues that always plague these episodic movies, its consistency makes it the best horror anthology to come out since Trick ‘r Treat.
Things start with The Way Out directed by Radio Silence, who handle both the opening and closing stories. As an opening, the short really serves little purpose other than reeling viewers in with a deliberately hidden story that will be revealed in the concluding chapter (cleverly titled The Way In). Two men (Chad Villela & Matt Bettinelli-Olpin) are covered in blood and fleeing after escaping from someone (or something) that has them freaked out. After driving for a while, they notice a large, floating, skeletal demon following them, and despite their best efforts to escape they find themselves stuck in a sort of closed loop (also serving as a hint towards the film’s overall narrative structure). The purposefully vague plot makes this segment easy to forget, but it does a fine job establishing the major elements that run through the rest of the stories: the long stretch of highway in the Californian desert, and themes of regret, guilt and retribution.
Next up is Siren, Roxanne Benjamin’s directorial debut (she worked as a producer on V/H/S). Sadie (Fabianne Therese), Kim (Nathalie Love) and Ava (Hannah Marks) are a touring band whose van breaks down on the highway, and after getting offered a ride by a polite couple to stay at their house for the night Sadie begins noticing something seriously wrong with their hosts. Benjamin’s segment kicks off the strongest stretch of Southbound, with a fun little horror story that has a few devilish twists, along with a grim yet funny ending that segues into the film’s high point. David Bruckner’s Accident opens with Lucas (Mather Zickel) calling 911 to help someone injured in a car accident he caused. Bruckner hits a sort of twisted groove that none of the other films come close to reaching, and does a far better job at creating a sense of mystery that generates intrigue instead of frustration. And Brucker’s hook to the story is simple but effective: Lucas does the right thing, only to discover that he’s within a realm where morals don’t exist. It’s a brilliant short, with a low-key ending that provides the film’s best transition.
Unfortunately, the next story, Patrick Horvath’s Jailbreak, starts a slight downward trajectory due to its half-assed attempts to build out a mythology around the film’s location. Danny (David Yow) comes to one of the small towns along the highway in search of his missing sister, and it amounts to a lot of elements getting introduced without explanation as a way to imply some elaborate, complex supernatural society or system within this stretch of the desert. Horvath’s specificity only breaks the compelling illusion of something sinister in Bruckner’s previous short, suddenly showing there are weird back alleys and tattoo parlours all around. And the final short plays out as a riff on The Strangers before trying to explain what exactly was going on earlier in The Way Out.
But the less successful shorts in Southbound’s latter half don’t tank the film because of the overall thematic and visual through line. It’s hard to make desert locations look bad, and the film’s four directors of photography do a great job enhancing the isolated and dangerous qualities of the barren landscapes these characters can’t find their way out of. Southbound can act like an argument for why anthologies can benefit from a more collaborative effort, because even when one filmmaker might handle a theme or idea in a way that falters, the echoes of the stronger segments still ring through. It’s a big benefit in Southbound’s case, and helps make an increasingly stale format feel refreshing again.
A version of this review was originally published on September 18th, 2015, as part of our coverage of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.