[89 minutes. R. Directors: Roxanne Benjamin; David Bruckner; Patrick Horvath; Radio Silence]
After it was over, I wondered: does Southbound win by default?
I know, I know: it’s not about whether you win or lose, but how you play the game (ha, ha)!
In the boundless terrain known as the Millennial Horror Anthology, the lessons of films like Creepshow, Dead of Night (1945), and Tales of Terror have been mostly forgotten. Notions of narrative and aesthetic consistency – and the challenges contained therein – have been jettisoned, replaced by disparate tales propped up by weak wraparound stories (the V/H/S films being prime offenders). Sometimes, a wraparound story doesn’t factor in at all, leaving what is essentially a lazily-assembled short-film compilation (such as the catastrophic ABCs of Death 2).
I have talked elsewhere about my overall disenchantment with this trend, and how these projects often come across with all the charm of high-fives at a circle jerk.
Then along comes Southbound. I heard a few voices in the social-media wilderness (@AFiendOnFilm; @loveandmonsters) buzzing about it prior to its DVD release, but had no inkling of its plot (outside of its anthology structure).
And don’t get me wrong: when done well, I enjoy me some horror anthology. The most ambitious of this subgenre blend a wide variety of characters and scenarios to great effect, creating unpredictable terrain that holds the viewer’s attention throughout. This is a sandbox where filmmakers can have great fun juggling disparate premises, and let their imaginations run wild – one of the reasons I love Lewis Teague’s Cat’s Eye so much (outside of its feline protagonist) is that the absurdity of its stories bleeds into reactions of both humor and terror.
There is something to be said, truly, about Southbound from a story perspective: there is a definite flow to the proceedings that gives it the free-form feel of a dream, something that is sorely lacking in the horror anthology efforts we’ve grown accustomed to. While the tales blend into each other, that isn’t to say there is a relationship between characters and stories, per se (or is there?). The bottom line is: this gives the film a sense of overall cohesion, instead of a group of shorts cobbled into a loose feature.
We open on two blood-spattered guys, Jack (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin) and Mitch (Chad Villella) speeding down a desert highway, while black, jellyfish-like specters loom in the distance; parking at a rest stop, they find themselves stuck in a fatal loop where a crime from their recent past is literally inescapable. The next segment follows an all-Grrrl band stranded along the roadside, given a lift by a ‘50s-sitcom couple who offer lodging, dinner, and perhaps something more. The third story has a tortured hit-and-run driver (Mather Zickel) desperately attempting to do what’s best for his victim. The next tale revolves around an obsessed father (The Jesus Lizard’s David Yow) seeking the whereabouts of his estranged daughter. And the final segment brings the story full circle, centering on an act of revenge carried out via a tried-and-true home invasion template.
It’s not a spoiler to mention the intermittent appearance of Carnival of Souls on random TVs throughout the film. After all, that 1962 classic – with its at-times literal blurring of fantasy and reality – dealt firmly in matters of spirituality (in both a religious and secular sense), and notions of karma as a vengeful exterminator unto itself. In Southbound, characters are either haunted or perpetrate the haunting, and their comeuppance often hinges on an ironic cruelty that invokes the wheel-of-fortune randomness that punctuates everyday life. Even the victims, like Mary Henry in Carnival, carry traits of circumstantial tragedy while raising the paradox that they are authors of their own fates.
It bears noting that there are some exceptional performances to be witnessed here, from Zickel – who goes through emotions of fear, guilt, and acceptance in what is essentially a one-man segment – to rising genre ingénue Fabianne Therese (John Dies at the End; Starry Eyes), who shines as the haunted band leader who finds herself isolated from reality and alienated from her friends. And in a seemingly peripheral role, Maria Olsen (of the forthcoming I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà vu) is given the film’s greatest introduction, and delivers a performance of menacing, understated intensity. To top things off, Glass Eye Pix head honcho Larry Fessenden offers up an aural presence as the gravel-voiced radio commentator whose ruminations on fate and consequence stitch the stories together.
All that being said, does Southbound, for all its effort to be a throwback to the honorable tradition of the horror anthology, deliver the satisfaction horror fans seek?
I’ll say this much: some of its images, sounds, and twists are still rattling around in my brain. It is compelling at times, but also meandering and inconclusive. The run time is a compact 90 minutes, but I couldn’t help but wonder if some segments would have benefited from more character and (sub-)plot development. I realize the ambiguity is intentional, and it does complement the film as a vision of Purgatory. But part of me wonders how great Southbound could have been with even more detail added to the individual stories (it certainly would’ve made its cumulative moody weight that much more oppressive – in a good way).
Who knows…perhaps repeat visits to this particular lost highway will yield more satisfying results. Until then, it’s a good horror effort within an outstanding year.
3 out of 5 stars
Crash Analysis Support Team:
Jonny Numb (aka Jonathan Weidler) measures his life in coffee spoons, and writes reviews once every couple years at numbviews.livejournal.com. He co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast, and can be found on Twitter and Letterboxd @JonnyNumb.
(Photo by ConTV.)