Every omnibus film and anthology flick, regardless of genre, has to figure out its framing device as if it’s painstakingly assembling a puzzle: How best to successively link a series of interconnected yet mostly unrelated micro-narratives? What makes an effective plotting glue? Horror anthologies show that you can use just about anything to achieve that effect, even the artifice of cinema itself, which each of the V/H/S films turned into a delivery service for terror. But the framing device most often used by horror films is the host, a storyteller of spooky, wicked or otherwise unwholesome intention tasked with relaying each macabre plot in order to entice and orient their viewers. The Cryptkeeper, Mr. Simms, Bob Carter, The Creep—they act as guides (and even as menaces) to captive audiences held fast in their thrall.
The latest film to enter into this grand old horror tradition, Southbound solves the framing problem by jettisoning it almost entirely. The film takes us on a road trip down a stretch of highway where terrible things happen to people—good, neutral or straight-up awful—and as we travel along this dusty interstate we occasionally hear broadcasts from a radio DJ represented through voice only by the great Larry Fessenden. He casts a diaphoretic shadow over the film’s sun-baked locale, but we never see him and he never breaks the fourth wall to address us directly. That aural distance supplies a certain level of ominousness, but Fessenden’s vocals act more like a series of chain links than a casing for Southbound’s quintet of chillers.
What actually binds these five tales together, then? As it so happens, it’s the tales themselves. As each story ends, the next one begins, the perspective baton passed from one doomed protagonist to the next. The film is just a relay race of horror: Bad stuff that happens in one leg is carried on to the next, and then to the next, all the way to the end.
Southbound begins with “The Way Out,” in which two men try to outrun a gang of revenants that are out for their blood for reasons unexplained. From there, we meet an indie band on tour who, when their van breaks down, end up in the tender care of a creepy family. Next, a man engaged in some distracted driving smacks a woman with his car and tries to save her life at an eerie abandoned hospital. Subsequently, an angry gent armed with a shotgun shows up at a dive bar looking for his long-lost sister. And finally, a group of masked killers interrupt a family vacation, all things of course taking a turn for the worst.
The film’s directing cadre—comprised of V/H/S vets Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner and Radio Silence, as well as Patrick Horvarth—integrate each of their contributions to seamlessly, which is an impressive feat on its own merits. But Southbound needs more than a smart approach to a tried and true format to work. It needs to be effective, and it needs to make sense as a whole, which is a difficult balancing act for any joint enterprise between a slew of filmmakers with different aesthetic sensibilities. Southbound’s authorial harmony lends it a surprising amount of propulsion, but it’s the individual strength of its combined segments that give the film bite.
Tricksters and demons, vengeful spirits and serial killers, the hope of salvation and the lingering presence of Satan: These are the things that Southbound is made of. The film has a single vision but is built on a wide variety of grim and ghoulish horror tropes, all the better to satisfy the hungers of even the most niche genre connoisseurs. Best of all, though, the wild variations from one section of the picture to the next enhances rather than dilutes the viewing experience. It helps that there are common themes that run across the film’s guignol—loss, regret and guilt make up a repeated refrain—and that the sum of its parts adds up to an examination of how people unwittingly architect their own suffering. But Southbound is first and foremost a work of velocity, a movie that drags us across the most nightmarish of Möbius strips, a joyride through Hell well worth buckling up for.
Directors: Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, Radio Silence
Writers: Roxanne Benjamin, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Susan Burke, Patrick Horvath, Dallas Richard Hallam
Starring: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Kate Beahan, Fabienne Therese, Davey Johnson, Larry Fessenden, Karla Droege, Zoe Cooper, Gerald Downey, Susan Burke, Chad Villella, Mather Zickel, Tyler Tuione, Tipper Newton
Release Date: February 5, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.