Southbound (2015)

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Directed by: Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, Radio Silence

Writing Credits: Roxanne Benjamin, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Susan Burke, Dallas Richard Hallam, Patrick Horvath

A sand-logged horror anthology in the vein of recent indies like V/H/S 2 and Trick ‘r Treat.  Southbound serves up five equally cryptic tales — all tied together by a shared time and setting — with much of the action taking place along a sinister strait of desert road.

By their very nature, anthology films are inconsistent.  Even the most worthwhile titles (Dead of Night, Creepshow, Wild Tales) are more than a little spotty in places — and those are pictures with solo writers & directors.  Southbound has four directors, and nearly twice as many writers on board.  The opening credits, which play over scenes of a speeding pickup, function almost like road sign, one which seems to read: ‘bumpy terrain ahead’.

As you might have already guessed, Southbound is not entirely successful.  Blending science fiction and horror, its stories and characters follow a kind of dream logic.  In the wraparound portion of the film, two murderers flee from a swarm of vengeful, scythe-wielding skeletons.  Then, after passing the same gas station a number of times, a hard truth dawns on them: this is an infinitely looping purgatory.   It’s an engaging enough setup, however the elementary dialogue in these scenes is so completely at odds with the fantastical situation, that the overall effect is one of discord.  Consider lines like ‘I’m not running.’ and ‘I know we’ve had a pretty fucked up day, but if you could keep it together…!’  These might land well enough in a chase flick, but they’re considerably less at home in a story about swarming skeletal phantoms.

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These concepts might sound fairly novel, but there is precedent here.  For one, there are repeated echoes of the lesser known Quicksilver Highway; a double-bill portmanteau horror from 1997, also set against a backdrop of desert road.  Similarly, Southbound’s fourth segment — which concerns a reconciliation of estranged siblings, one of whom is a actually vampire — calls to mind the first kicker in Amicus’ The Vault of Horror.

This is a film which knocks over as many cliches as it clings to, and although there are enough glints of inspiration, even its most unfamiliar stories eventually collapse onto their hackneyed punchlines.  In the final reel there is a deeply unsurprising home invasion sequence (in which the wile daughter is left to fend off the intruders, following the murder of her parents), which I will credit for its final reveal, but which also falls largely flat.  I neglected to count the number of times a character says to a supposed stranger: ‘How did you know my name?’, after said enigmatic stranger calls them by their full name, although my guess would be: too many times.

Ultimately, Southbound remains watchable for the fragmentary nature of its stories; there is always something withheld, and as such, the viewer never feels completely in the loop.  Still, as the film winds on, it’s difficult not to find yourself growing less and less interested in the idea of a ‘loop’, as the question niggles: are these simply mediocre stories with a sci-fi gloss?

Southbound should be commended for everything that it tries, it’s just a pity these excursions don’t bear a richer fruit.

S.S.

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