The pull of the open road is strong and tantalizes with the untold possibility of adventure and experience, but not all roads lead to their intended destinations. Such is the highway to hell that several travelers find themselves on in the new horror anthology, Southbound.
Two men with bloodied faces pull into a remote way station in the American Southwest. Something is on their mind, but more pressing, something is on their tail. Skeletal phantoms have followed them across the desert, and escape is clearly not an option.
The opening segment – which also returns to close the film – is from the collective known as Radio Silence who previously delivered a short segment in the first V/H/S. In that film their story – the haunted house bit that ended the film – was the clear highlight thanks to a manic energy and an incredibly creative display of visual tricks. They don’t quite achieve the same heights here, but they still manage a fun tale of revenge complete with very cool creature design and a handful of creepy moments reminiscent of The Strangers.
Three young women, all members of a band still in mourning over the apparent death of their fourth member, are on the road heading to a gig when their van loses a tire. They accept the offer for a ride from a too-nice couple and soon find themselves in over their head when the kindness of these particular strangers reveals the madness beneath.
Roxanne Benjamin, whose previous horror anthology experience includes producing all three V/H/S films, is finally in full creative control as director of this segment, and she devotes a fair amount of time getting to know the girls before things get messy. That’s helpful as it makes it easier to root for them along the way, something that’s missing from the first segment. The main narrative goes in a very obvious direction, but it still finds engagement thanks in big part to Fabianne Therese’s performance.
Next up is the story of a businessman driving through the night. He’s smartly talking hand-free on the phone, but unfortunately he’s still looking at pictures on the device. He looks up just in time to see a young woman in the road but too late to stop his car from slamming into her. The idea of fleeing the scene visibly crosses his mind, but he does what’s right and calls 911 only to discover too late that no good deed goes unpunished.
David Bruckner’s tale is the clear highlight of the film with its escalating tension and smart humor. A frenzied pace and grisly gore effects add to the segment’s high degree of entertainment, and it’s also the most visually-pleasing stretch too. Shots like the one above as well as its eerie ghost-town feel help create a Twilight Zone-like atmosphere that moves in unexpected directions.
The final tale (before the opening wraparound concludes) sees a harried older man enter a bar brandishing a gun. He’s hellbent on a mission to find his sister, and he’s convinced the barman knows where she is. After fighting off one of the locals he forces his new found hostage to take him to her, but he’s not quite prepared for where he ends up and her resistance to going back home.
There’s something of a one-note sensation to Patrick Horvath’s segment that ultimately leaves the short feeling underwhelming. The characters’ motivations are far from weighty, and the resulting execution seems rushed and more like an outline than a complete story. It keeps going for several minutes after we’ve realized the punch line, and rather than feel the impact we’re left watching it all slowly deflate. Still, there are some minor moments here that work on a visual level.
Southbound, like almost every anthology film ever made, is a mixed bag, but that said there are no absolute stinkers here. Budgetary restrictions occasionally rear their head in the area of visual effects, and some of the stories seem content treading somewhat familiar ground, but the genius at work here is its commitment to making this a far more cohesive film than the fractured anthologies we’re used to.
Rather than fade to black between stories or feature title cards for each, the film transitions naturally between the tales. As one ends the camera moves to another door, a different seat, or the next car approaching on the road and smoothly introduces the characters occupying the next story. It make the entire experience one continuing feature unfolding in a common world of regrets and past sins, and that theme is stronger for it.
In a year that’s also seen Tales of Halloween and A Christmas Horror Story – the latter is not all that good, and the former is focused more on laughs than it is on terror – Southbound stands apart as the most creatively horrific anthology of the bunch. With any luck the filmmakers will plan a second road trip soon.
Our review of Southbound originally ran during Fantastic Fest 2015.