The anthology horror has made something of a resurgence in recent years with films like V/H/S, Tales of Halloween and The ABCs of Death. In any such collection there will be stronger and weaker segments, some good enough to justify a film’s whole existence, some sufficiently terrible to sink the entire movie. Southbound achieves an impressive balance of quality, perhaps never achieving excellence but never tripping itself up. Watching the film is rather like enjoying a marathon of decent-to-great episodes of The Twilight Zone, albeit all set in the same haunted and arid wasteland. At Dundead 2016, much fanfair was made about Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, which ultimately turned out to be an okay movie rather bafflingly lauded as fantastic. In my own case, Southbound was superior, gripping and imaginative and unsettling.
Every story in Southbound takes place along the same lost highway running through a seemingly endless desert. In “The Way Out” gunmen Jack (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin) and Mitch (Chad Villella) flee from eerie, floating creatures, only to find that they are trapped in a repeating loop. Jack is brutally killed, and Mitch accepts his fate and is forced to chase his daughter through an empty house, forever unable to catch up to her. “Siren” finds rock band The White Tights breaking down on the road and accepting a ride from an unnervingly friendly couple. After a dinner of highly suspicious roast they are co-opted into an occult ritual from which only vegetarian Sadie (Fabianne Therese) escapes, only to literally collide with the next segment. She is mowed down by a car driven by Lucas (Mather Zickel) in “The Accident”. Taking instructions over the phone from supposed EMTs, his efforts to save her life turn out to be a cruel prank. “Jailbreak” sees Danny (David Yow) trying to rescue his sister from this strange place, and discovering to his horror that she is here by choice. Finally, “The Way In” has a family under attack by sinister masked assailants seeking revenge for father Daryl’s (Gerald Downey) hidden past crimes. The men behind the masks are revealed to be Jack and Mitch, who are pursued by the hovering monsters after accidentally killing Daryl’s daughter Jem (Hassie Harrison), bringing the film full circle.
There are a few interpretations of the movie that might be offered. The desert has long been the home of alleged supernatural goings-on, from secret military bases housing UFOs to strange cryptids like jackalopes and chupacabras. Far from civilisation, it is the perfect setting for scary stories. Even the landscape seems hostile, with vast swathes lacking humanity’s most basic need, water, and slender roads offering the only lifelines in the inhospitable terrain. This is only a superficial view, however. The title betrays the true identity of this godforsaken land. This is Hell, a desolate wilderness that stretches out in every direction and from which there can be no escape. Every protagonist is a newcomer, someone who has arrived in this accursed place, seemingly unaware that they are damned.
Accepting that this is Hell, the question arises of who in the film is really human. Every local seems to be a demon of some kind (most apparently Warren (Tyler Tuione), a gigantic barfly capable of transforming into a hideous, hairy beast), existing only to torment their hapless victims. Less clear is the status of some characters, particularly Sadie’s bandmates and Daryl’s family, including supposed viewpoint character Jem. The erratic behaviour of band members Kim (Nathalie Love) and Ava (Hannah Marks) seems to indicate that they are apparitions created as part of Sadie’s punishment, as they taunt her about her culpability for the death of their friend Alex. Jem presents a problem for the movie’s logic. She seems to straddle the join between “The Way In” and “The Way Out”. She cannot be in Hell of her own accord, and yet is treated by the film like a “real” character, despite likely being just another construction.
This is not Southbound‘s only problematic point. Mitch’s fate, cursed to hear his dead daughter’s crised and never being able to rush to her aid, does not gel with the broader idea that events will replay endlessly as the characters are punished. This issue notwithstanding, most of the hellish tortures are satisfyingly sadistic. Mitch and Daryl are ensnared in a terrible symbiosis, losing their loved ones at each other’s hands. Lucas made a horrendous mistake and is offered false hope that he can make things right. When he is then given the chance to just drive away and forget, the audience knows that all of this is destined to happen over again. Danny’s tale is the most tragic. He has somehow travelled into Hell itself to bring his sister home, and discovers both that she is there of her own volition and that she belongs there, having murdered their parents. When he is accosted by strange, naked demons, she repays his bravery by simply abandoning him.
If this is Hell, Larry Fessenden’s everpresent radio DJ might be the voice of Satan, offering subversively optimistic commentary on the plight of those caught on this lonely road, suggesting that they might outrun their fate if they can drive fast and far enough. (Another piece of evidence that this is Hell? The only radio station plays almost nothing but country.) It has been suggested that this means that the characters could be redeemed if only they make better decisions the next time around. This is highly unlikely. Sadie does try to avoid going with the satanic cultists, only for Kim to force the issue. Lucas seems completely unaware that he is going around in circles, else he would not have fallen so utterly for the same ruse. Mitch contritely submits to his punishment, and arguably suffers far worse than repeating the events in the desert. Any hint of absolution is a smokescreen serving to intensify the suffering of the condemned.
Southbound mines impressive variety from its premise. Each story is distinct and creative, and there are clear traces of a wider world operating around the events as shown. The ethereal presence of the diabolical creatures is striking, particularly when they first appear wraith-like in the distance, malevolent sentinels observing every tale. While never particularly terrifying (especially during the few clumsy jump-scares), but is engrossing and bizarre, with enough gore to turn a stomach or two. Upon a second viewing the clever foreshadowings far outnumber the inconsistencies, and little is lost when the element of surprise is gone. Of the recent spate of horror anthologies, Southbound may be the best.
Directed by Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath and Radio Silence
Written by Roxanne Benjamin, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Susan Burke, Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath
Starring Chad Villella, Matt-Bettinelli-Olpin and Kristina Pesic