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.
February 5th, 2016
Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Dallas Hallam, Patrick Horvath, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Susan Burke
Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, Radio Silence
This’ll no doubt age me, but I’m borrowing from the classic Jerry Reed song (and tweaking it a bit).
“South bound and down, loaded up and truckin’
We gonna do what they say can’t be done
We’ve got a long way to go and a short time to get there…”
Southbound is another new horror anthology film (from the folks behind V/H/S) currently making its way down its last stretch of the film festival highway. And the reason this Smokey & the Bandit ear-worm comes to mind (other than the similar title) is that Southbound is all about varying tales taking place on some long, sporadically populated stretch of desert highway. Most of the people caught up in the scenarios that play out here are “loaded up” with guilt and are atoning for their past sins. And as far as “a long way to go and a short time to get there”, there’s an impressive list of stories covered in Southbound — a film that’s less than 90 minutes.
The first of five tales is called The Way Out. It follows two bloodied and breathless guys. They’ve apparently just escaped from an unknown and clearly violent episode in their lives, and are now being pursued by some sort of creepy winged creatures floating just off the ground. We don’t get to know what it was that happened earlier in the day of these scattered friends (until later), but we will see them pull up into a bizarre gas station / hotel on the side of this lonely highway — over and over again. In this chapter, it’s the winged-monsters which will be your focus (not that anything else is lacking in this episode), as they are terrifying, and their intro is one of those, “What was that?” moments as they nonchalantly pass by in the background of the first scene. This chapter has a great ending (truly indicative of someone’s personal hell) and a brisk journey (with great gore effects) before moving onto the second part of the film.
The second tale (entitled Siren) follows three young girls — band members in “The White Tights”. They are travelling these desolate roads in a hippie-era VW Bus on their way to their next gig. Their story picks up in the same hotel where the last episode ended. Out on the road, they get a flat and are driven to a home in the middle of the desert to await AAA. And as is to be expected, their saviors are not all that they seem. I take that back. They’re creepy from the moment we meet them, so they are sort of what they seem. With a history of one of their other band-members recently deserting the group, it’s a fast spiral into these girls’ situation. Of particular note in this one, are the two aged twin boys who share the dinner table with our band members, along with the couple who saved them and their dinner guests. The two actors playing the twins are perfectly cast, perfectly choreographed and perfectly creepy. As one of the girls escapes from the unpleasant goings-on of this farmhouse (slightly reminiscent of Sally’s escape in the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), she runs blindly and desperately onto the dark highway. And on we bloodily go…
Performance-wise, I was most impressed with Mather Zickel’s work in the third episode — Accident (the story following that of the girl’s band). Distracted while driving on the dark and deserted road, Lucas (Zickel) hits someone with his car. He’s in the middle of nowhere, and immediately calls 911. He doesn’t know his location, so is directed to the little town just ahead — its lights dancing on the dark horizon in front of his car — and to take the twisted body of the gasping girl with him. He ends up in an abandoned and dusty hospital, and is taken through the motions to save the girl’s life. All the while, you’ll be watching behind him in the hospital’s corridors (I was expecting a zombie tale of some kind, but that was not the payoff). The episode is drenched in tension, and doesn’t let up from the get-go. All of Lucas’ choices are sound, and the gore in this segment is something so detailed (we see the inner-workings, if you will) and unique, it was enough to elicit squeals of disgust and delight from me and a good portion of the audience. Zickel is fantastic in the role, bringing the proper amount of confusion, exhaustion, adrenaline and perseverance which any person might encounter in such a situation. We don’t like Lucas for his questionable driving, but he redeems himself by doing the right thing — and his quick actions (despite the strange direction he receives from the 911 operator) get him out of this very sticky (and bloody) situation. Easily the best (and most intense) segment in the film.
Jailbreak — the film’s fourth journey — takes us into a bar where several regulars (they’re not really that regular, though, are they?) are bombarded by an armed and loyal brother who’s been on a search for his sister over the past 13 years. The question in this story is, does your sister want to be rescued? Lots of good surprises in this chapter, and a great performance from David Yow (as Danny, the older brother). He’s made to look scraggy, but it’s the tired physicality and desperation in his wild eyes which push his performance over the top. A great addition to the anthology, but despite that praise, I would place this story in last place.
The final tale — called The Way In — finds a happy family coming home to a recently rented, and well-appointed home in the desert. It’s clear that they’re beginning a new life after some unfortunate events. This is where our “good-old-boys” from the first story resurface, and all is brought full circle, with appropriate explanation and exceptional visual effects (as our creatures from the first story return with more of their friends). Finding out the reason for these two characters’ plight in this story, is painful and ironic. It just brings up the thought, “Revenge begets revenge.” This approach is appropriate, as the film (all around and in separate episodes) keeps circling back itself.
Whereas so many other anthology films have one bookend story which will be revisited in between the segments, Southbound truly intertwines the characters and the events. Yes, we end up with the same characters we began with, but these folks are deeply connected to the events in the final tale. As is the case with something so similar to The Twilight Zone and Creepshow, you can expect plenty of moral lessons, and people paying the ultimate price for the wrongs they’ve committed against others.
I’m sure someone will come out of the ether of the internet to correct me on this, but I can’t recall an anthology where each story was so dependent on the others. The climax of one tale will prominently begin the second, and so on. This could be (and should be) the new way to tell an anthology story. Of course, in Southbound there is also the narrative connection of a radio personality (played by horror regular Larry Fessenden) offering bits of advice (a la The Crypt-Keeper) and spouting his anecdotes during and between the various episodes — keeping it in line with the narration of films like the recent Tales of Halloween and the aforementioned Creepshow.
Southbound is a genuinely intense and expertly produced addition to the horror anthology catalog. It had its final festival showing at this year’s AFI Fest and I’ve heard that we should keep an eye out for various DVD/VOD and limited theatrical releases sometime in February 2016.