“Five interlocking tales of terror follow the fates of a group of weary travellers who confront their worst nightmares – and darkest secrets – over one long night on a desolate stretch of desert highway.” — IMDb
A step up from V/H/S, though with many of the same creators, Southbound is one of the most solid horror anthologies I’ve seen. We’ve got Radio Silence (Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, and and Tyler Gillett) writing and directing the wraparound segments, with Roxanne Benjamin (XX), David Bruckner (The Signal, The Ritual), and Patrick Horvath directing standalone shorts in an amazingly cohesive lineup. They not only made sure each segment flowed into the next without awkward breaks, but the style stayed consistent throughout while still keeping each filmmaker’s unique flair. The whole collection is accompanied by an intense feeling of dread, with none of the shorts coming to a conclusive end, therefore leaving us, brilliantly, without even the comfort of a complete narrative.
** SPOILERS! **
The Way Out/The Way In are the two wraparound segments and I personally loved how they split this part of the story in two by showing them in reverse order, both for the sake of jumping straight into the action as well as keeping the surprise at the end of The Way In intact.
The black, hovering entities in The Way Out are SO creepy — they filled me with instant dread… at least right up until you see them up close. Then you’re like “oh, cool, they saved some money by picking these up at the local Party City”. I did like when they would spread their bony little wings, but if you got too close to them, they lost their creep factor, at least for me. But hovering a ways out in the desert, discernible enough to tell they are going to fuck up your life in some way but still vague enough to be a terrifying question mark? Hell yes.
Really, the entire concept of being stuck in a loop — re-living the same day, the same trip, the same stretch of highway over and over — is scary in itself. It was very reminiscent of In the Mouth of Madness. A thread I was looking through on Reddit even said the gas station attendant’s name badge said “Sutter”, perhaps a clever nod to the fictional author, but I didn’t catch that myself (though I confirmed it on IMDb).
Siren, Roxanne Benjamin’s segment, was probably my least favorite. It was her first directing work and for that it was definitely stronger than it gets credit for, but it felt way too predictable to me, even keeping in mind the obvious dark humor throughout. I appreciate some good jokes and taking horror in a more comedic direction, but I think she honed that skill and put it to much better use in her XX segment (which was brilliant). Here, it just feels a bit lazy. Perhaps if it had been done with a storyline less overdone than prim-and-proper-family-actually-sacrifices-young-girls, but the whole premise of the other two girls not prickling up in suspicion despite ANY of the obvious signs around them was just too out there. And don’t even get me started on dead Alex deadpanning “now we can all be together”.
But this leads us to The Accident, without a doubt the strongest and most unsettling of the bunch. This one MESSED ME UP. From the car accident itself with her flipping over the vehicle like a damn gymnast, to the subtle but obvious flip-flopping in Lucas’s mind over whether to help or just speed off into the night, to the inexplicably abandoned town and hospital… it’s horrifying. It has more gore than all of the others combined — just the sound of her gasping and choking is enough to turn your stomach, but the scene where her leg starts to, well, COME OFF as he’s carrying her might just do you in. He’s all slipping on blood trying to flop her useless leg back onto the table, barely steadying himself as it wheels around… oof. It’s intense.
There’s something so OFF about the voices on the phone from the very beginning. You just know their intentions aren’t pure. The two female voices are chilling enough, but when the wounded girl bites down on his hand as he’s inserting the tube and this strong male voice suddenly asserts “she’s close to death” as we quickly cut to a shot from outside the room as the surgery lights flick on… so great. Part of the fear that I felt watching this segment was just how desperate of a situation he’s in: he knows, especially in that moment, that something is so very wrong, but he can’t do a thing about it.
The other key moment for me — both in emotional intensity and ability to make you faint with gore — was Lucas compressing her lung manually. Holy yikes. The incision, his obvious horror as he reaches inside her abdomen up to his wrist, the eye contact and tear rolling down her cheek as he finds her lung, the spray of blood as she’s forced to exhale… all just leading to her inevitable death. The moment is wild enough on its own, but then to have it followed by those voices on the phone cackling in delight is just cruel.
I did love that Lucas was allowed to leave, though — the clean set of clothes hanging in a locker, and him hitting the unlock button on his clicker at his bloody and broken car only to have the brand new one behind him light up was great. If we’re going along with the plotline of everyone along this highway being stuck in their version of hell, I also loved the ambiguity: is he truly being allowed to leave, to go to his version of heaven (home with his wife), because he stayed at the scene of the accident and did everything he could to help the girl, even going against his own good sense by listening to those mysterious voices? Or is he just going to drive down that road and hit her over and over again, never able to save her? The best part is that we don’t know.
That ending leads into Jailbreak, which I thought was another fairly strong one. I loved the vibe in the bar — aptly named “The Trap” — and the fact that the regulars were just casually demons of hell was pretty great. This one was important, I think, for not only establishing the theme of hell, but for emphasizing that the anthology is putting its own spin on it. The bartender mentioning to Danny that “it might look like a desert, but it isn’t” seemed to me like a good surface observation — it’s not a desert, it’s actually hell — but maybe a reminder that this version of hell doesn’t operate under the strict rules that we’re accustomed to hearing about. But there’s also more ambiguity in the sense that we don’t really know if Danny has found a way to die and end up here, or if there’s some way to access this realm in life.
I thought his sister, Jesse (Tipper Newton), had such an interesting mood to her — she was mesmerizing. And her reveal — that she killed their parents on purpose, that “this place is for people like me” — shortly before the demons grab Danny and start ripping him apart as he begs for her to come back, is both heartbreaking and bone-chilling. You sense a feeling of belonging on her part, almost a comfortable joy, as she turns on the radio as she drives off.
The last segment, The Way In, wasn’t a favorite of mine, but it’s obviously crucial for establishing how the two men we see at the beginning got into this hellscape to begin with. Again, it’s not totally clear if this stretch of road has always been this sort of purgatory for people to be tortured by what haunts them, or if it was a series of events set off by this home invasion (as this ending story is really the beginning). We see the winged creatures rising up out of the parents’ bodies and the earth cracking open, but was that just the creatures making their first appearance to these men in particular, or did they summon them? Is the girl in the family truly Mitch’s daughter (first seen in the motel room, as he’s tormented by a memory of being unable to save her), as I’ve seen suggested (though that theory makes no sense to me), or did the father kill her (which would explain them whispering “eye for an eye” as they kill his wife)? If Mitch obviously feels some sympathy for the young girl — clearly seeing some of his own daughter in her, and I’m sure drawing on some of his own pain over losing a child — would he really kill her just for his own self-preservation? Though I suppose that’s the kind of evil that would draw forth the demons of hell and shove you headfirst into a loop of pain and suffering.
I just… yeah. I loved it. I loved the complexities it highlighted, really — it wasn’t so straightforward as “person does bad thing, person ends up in their own hell”. There were motivations as different as each person, sort of a reminder that people do evil for all kinds of reasons, and some of those are just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This review took me FOREVER to write because I spent time almost every paragraph just sitting and scratching my head and mulling over the details. It could probably stand up to another few watches just to look out for signs and metaphors I missed. Really, really great collection.
Rating: 7.5/10 | Director: Radio Silence (Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, and Tyler Gillett), Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath | Writer: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Roxanne Benjamin, Susan Burke, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, Dallas Richard Hallam | Music: The Gifted | Cinematography: Tarin Anderson, Tyler Gillett, Alexandre Naufel, Andrew Shulkind | Starring: Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Kristina Pesic, Fabianne Therese, Nathalie Love, Hannah Marks, Susan Burke, Davey Johnson, Mather Zickel, Maria Olsen, David Yow, Matt Peters, Tyler Tuione, Tipper Newton, Hassie Harrison, Kate Beahan, Gerald Downey