‘Southbound’ Review | Roadway Malady of 2016
We sometimes forget, sitting pretty in our safe little homes, that every civilization on Earth is connected via lonely stretches of highway. The further we travel between one town and the next, the more tenuous our connection to each society becomes, and the more vulnerable we tend to feel. It is on one of these lonely stretches of road that Southbound takes place, a patch of land where five tales of terror whizz past each other. It doesn’t matter where they’re all going, since they may as well already be in Hell.
Isolation and dusty highways are recurring themes in Southbound, but otherwise these scary stories usually have little or no connection to each other besides a passing glimpse of a fellow protagonist. Directed by David Bruckner (the V/H/S segment Amateur Night), Radio Silence (the V/H/S short 10/31/98), Roxanne Benjamin (who produced V/H/S), and Patrick Horvath (who didn’t work on V/H/S), the film suffers the uneven fate of many horror anthologies: its segments vary in quality, and sometimes wildly. But the overall effect is striking, and the best segment is so inspired that it lifts the rest of the film up with it.
The Way Out, directed by Radio Silence, finds two blood-soaked mystery men on the run from a mysterious behemoth in the distance. They tear through the desert as fast as they can, but escape seems impossible. Their fear is palpable, their frustration even more so. The Way Out is enigmatic about its story, and may not satisfy you if you’re looking for easy answers. If you’re looking for an exciting new kind of monster, however, it’s going to grab you.
Siren, directed by Roxanne Benjamin, begins the way many horror films do. A group of young people stranded by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, but a least all of them are women this time. They are picked up by an off-puttingly chipper middle-aged couple, who invite them over for dinner and promise to fix their car, but there’s something wrong with them, something wrong with the neighbors, and something terribly wrong with the roast.
The biggest problem with Siren is its ending, which gets sidetracked before it really goes anywhere. But that’s a big part of the appeal of the next installment, Accident, directed by David Bruckner. This story comes out of nowhere, when a driver – distracted by his phone – hits a bystander on the road, calls 9/11 and discovers to his horror that help is not on the way. The voices on the phone talk him through what needs to happen to keep his victim alive, and it’s not pretty. Not pretty at all.
Accident is a particularly ingenious piece of horror filmmaking, elegant in its construct and absolutely nerve-racking in its execution. There is a sadistic plausibility to the set-up that immediately invites our empathy, with both the victim and the assailant who, to his credit, really is trying to make things right. Where this short goes is unpleasant, and the trip is dangerous. It’s a fantastic short movie in its own right.
Jailbreak, directed by Patrick Horvath, was probably destined to be a bit of a letdown after the punishing Accident. It’s not a bad film but it’s probably the one short in Southbound that would have benefited from more time, and it might – with a little stretching – have even worked better as a feature. An old man is looking for his young sister, and he’ll do anything to find her, even use his shotgun. But the people in this middle-of-nowhere town have secrets of their own, and he’s not going to like what he finds.
Many horror shorts have unanswered questions, in part because enigmas are scary and in part because there’s just no time to delve into complex mythologies. The bigger questions that Jailbreak hints at would seem to be more interesting than this little short is able to convey, which is basically a downtrodden way of saying Horvath’s film leaves you wanting more. Too much more. But at least you want it.
Radio Silence returns for the final short, The Way In, about a family who falls prey to a home invasion while on vacation. Revealing too much about this short would ruin it, but suffice it to say that Radio Silence deals just as well with straightforward violence here as they do with supernatural horror at the beginning of the film. It’s a mostly satisfying conclusion to a generally satisfying film.
There isn’t much tying Southbound together other than the locale and a DJ played by Larry Fessenden, whose dialogue seems to have been written specifically as connective tissue. (The same technique was used, to equal effective effect, in last year’s standout horror anthology Tales of Halloween.) But as a delivery system for several rock solid horror shorts (one of which is downright amazing), it’s an impressive film. Horror fans should definitely seek this one out, and everyone’s a horror fan, right?.
Top Photo: The Orchard
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.