Southbound Dir. Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, Radio Silence

[The Orchard; 2016]

Styles: horror anthology
Others: Creepshow, The Twilight Zone, V/H/S 2, Slacker

This should be the part where I talk about how horror anthologies (or any anthology film) are always uneven. This is where I would reference all the previous attempts at using different directors and writers usually lead to a film that (almost by definition) lacks cohesion and has good segments but also those that fall flat. I would talk about how the V/H/S series and Tales Of Halloween and other films all had good parts, but also had dismal aspects that one has to sit through. I would resign myself to the fact that it’s status quo for these short films to work as one film, or at least keep the same level of competency and effectiveness across all of its various moments. This should be that part where I mourn the lack of a good anthology film made by multiple directors, as it seems like it should work — it should be these smaller bite-sized portions of great films that work together as if handled by one voice. I would hypothesize about ways of correcting it and maybe going back to the one director/one writer model of Creepshow, which was the last time it seemed to work (some would say New York Stories, but that never felt like a cohesive whole to me). This should be a tiring, tiresome retread before a glum review.

But here’s the thing: that’s not going to happen. Southbound is a horror anthology, directed by multiple people and written by multiple people, and it should be an uneven mess with some stellar highlights and some (seemingly necessary) lowpoints. But it turns out that Southbound is an incredibly cohesive work that delivers interesting and unique stories all told with the same tone that delivers in every segment. Somehow the filmmakers (Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, and Radio Silence) have done what seemed to be the impossible and delivered an excellent film that, while not exceedingly scary, is filled with novel approaches to familiar tropes, terrific performances, amazing sound work, and a feeling like it’s all part of a bigger whole.

The film is made up of five interlocking stories that all take place on or around a lonely stretch of desert highway that may or may not be located in the deepest pits of Hell. It passes off (and incorporates) elements from the previous segment before going into the next, like a diabolic version of Richard Linklater’s Slacker. For these groups traveling the road, they’ll encounter terrors that they never dared dream of, and some of their own creation.

Why does Southbound work where so many horror anthologies fail? Is it because the filmmakers all have similar styles? Is it due to the use of a shared universe/setting that allows the writers and directors to riff on just one basic premise? I’m not sure, but I’m just happy that it transcends its subgenre to be an entertaining, unique piece of film. Despite the stories being handled by different people, all of them manage to capture a feeling of inescapable (and possibly eternal) dread. These are doomed people, and when placed against the backdrop of a nameless desert stretching far into the horizon, their plights resonate deeply and effectively with audiences watching them grapple with their fates.

What’s more, Southbound doesn’t rely on one type of horror or story, either (though the idea of the past haunting the present is a common theme amongst them). It mixes it up between monster film, mindfuckery, satanic exploits, home invasion, monster movie, and more. By crossing the various types of subgenres and tools that horror can use to jolt an audience, mixing in film soleil and noir tropes as well, the filmmakers take many familiar aspects but switch them up with unexpected outcomes. It’s a refreshing blend that results in a unique nightmare world that feels truly thought out and yet still mysteriously sinister. The fact that a lot of the tales have ambiguous elements and purposeful loose ends also lends a feeling ongoing malevolence that lives on well past the end credits.

The talent here isn’t relegated to just the writing and direction. Each of the four different cinematographers seem to be working from the same palette, adding to the uniformity of the anthology, and all manage to capture the desolate landscapes perfectly, making it almost into character that is beating down upon the protagonists. The actors all turn in great work, in particular Mather Zickel as a put-upon man stuck in an untenable situation and Fabianne Therese as a rocker chick haunted by her past mistakes while dealing with an absurd yet evil situation. The antagonists ooze different sorts of menace that make them formidable in any circumstance, and their victims act as the perfect audience surrogates. Lastly, the sound design is spot on and suitably innovative while the analog synth score by The Gifted provide a nice timeless, if retro, feel.

Like a sun bleached Twilight Zone, or perhaps closer to EC Comics’ violent and macabre morality tales, Southbound is a dark drive down a twisted road that seemingly only leads to more darkness and further punishment. Despite having different crews, writers, and directors, the film emerges as a united front of terror with a singular voice that hopefully will lead to more work for all of the filmmakers involved. Perfectly timed jumpscares, impressive gore shots for the splatterhounds, eerie atmospheres that seem like something from a collectively shared nightmare, and innovative twists on classic horror tropes make this a special film that’s worth revisiting. The makers of Southbound have seemingly done the impossible by delivering the best horror anthology film since Creepshow, renewing my faith in what is capable for the format. Who knew the answer for the aimless anthology film was to get literally lost in the desert? Apparently the makers of Southbound, and I’m very glad they did.

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