Written by: Roxanne Benjamin, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Susan Burke, Dallas Richard Hallam, Patrick Horvath
Directed by: Radio Silence, Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath
Starring: Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, & Fabianne Therese
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"We're all on the same endless highway... the one with no name and no exits... looking for a way out of tonight and into tomorrow."
Anthologies thrive on variety; indeed, it’s arguable that this is one of their greatest appeals, if not the greatest. There's something uniquely alluring about digging through a grab bag of fun-sized cinematic treats without knowing what exactly to expect. Because of this, cohesion is perhaps secondary: sure, many of the great anthologies find some unity in tone or theme, but how many of these things hang on some truly rickety, arbitrary frames that keep them from functioning as complete stories? The minds behind Southbound (many of whom hatched V/H/S) seem to have some awareness of this quandary, as they’ve crafted the rare omnibus truly coheres in tone, theme, and story without sacrificing the need for variety.
What’s more, Southbound seems to have been forged directly from the same fires as the format’s most distant—and momentous—forbearers. It doesn’t shy away from echoing the likes of Dead of Night or early Amicus efforts in its hazy, looping dream logic as it weaves through five interlocking stories set on or around the same stretch of desolate, purgatorial desert highway. A sinister B-side to Wolfman Jack (voiced by Larry Fessenden) evocatively croons on the radio, commenting upon and ferrying a collection of damned souls through moments marked by trauma and remorse. Eerie wraiths loom in the distance, hovering over the proceedings, casting some sort of supernatural judgment. This is no normal highway: its badlands stretch for miles in all directions, like a vast, arid sea waiting to engulf both its sinners and the audience alike in the eerie vibes and nightmare logic that immediately haunt Southbound.
Both are made explicit almost immediately, as the opening sequence (Radio Silence’s “The Way Out”) finds two weary, blood-spattered travelers (Chad Villella and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin) frantically trying to make their way home; floating behind them every step of the way are the judgmental wraiths whose gaze can’t be escaped, as the two men quite literally can’t stop going in circles. Each turn leads them back to the same dingy gas station, where Carnival of Souls prominently plays on a beat-up television set, ominously foreshadowing their—and perhaps everyone in Southbound’s—fates. Desperation kicks in, only to lead to a brutal encounter with the wraiths that announces the film’s commitment to accenting its psychological terrors with visceral outbursts; it's the former, however, that truly lingers during this opening segment, as one of the men is inexplicably led back to a horrific scene from his past, one that he’s forced to relive and regret.
What “The Way In” lacks in its elliptical narrative, it makes up for with the thick, oppressive atmosphere of a feedback loop. Acting as a prelude, it seems to be purposely obtuse in its refusal to connect every dot—what truly matters is that the characters’ frustration and remorse are made palpable in this hole-in-the-wall desert town at the intersection of Route 666 and the Twilight Zone. The inclusion of Carnival of Souls charts an obvious, familiar course for Southbound, yet it doesn’t telegraph a big twist so much as it heightens the grim inevitability surrounding the damned. Southbound also seems to operate with an awareness of this format’s history, so it doesn’t shy away from the now obvious climactic twists glimpsed in the likes Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and Tales from the Hood (with numerous others in between).
Rather than try to blindside the viewer by repeating this twist, the film slyly crafts a sense of foreboding doom. As the nature of Southbound and its inhabitants becomes more and more clear, the film hurtles along, breathlessly dragging its audience to an inevitable endgame. Before they can even reckon with the climax of “The Way In,” the film seamlessly glides right into Roxanne Benjamin’s “Siren,” wherein an all-girl punk band encounters an all-too-helpful, unnervingly kooky couple (Susan Burke and Davey Johnson) when their van blows a tire. Their roadside assistance leads to an unsettlingly accommodating stayover that quickly goes south: a dinner dedicated to a mysterious dark lord yield results in unholy vomiting (no surprise considering the main course is a hunk of charred, disgusting beef) and more in this gnarly fit of Satanic panic whose pleasures are best left to be discovered with as little foreknowledge possible.
In a short space, Benjamin escalates from one unhinged scenario to the next before effortlessly handing the reins over to David Bruckner for “The Accident,” arguably the film’s most memorable segment. In it, a man (Mather Zickel) speeding down the same nameless, southbound highway plows into a girl and is forced to administer emergency surgery in the ruins of a hospital in a nearby ghost town. Aided only by 911 personnel over the phone, he’s forced to confront his recklessness with this gruesome, stomach-churning procedure. Goopy, gross effects leave you squirming as he attempts to atone for his mistakes, guided by voices that grow more sinister with each bit of advice. Eventually, the visceral horrors subside, giving way to the haunting realization that we’re watching a man relive a heightened version of a regret that still lingers, even though he seemingly escaped any earthly consequences.
Each segment of Southbound functions like a puzzle piece, slowly revealing a key component, whether it be setting, theme, or tone. If “The Accident” firmly locks in the theme of existential regret, then Patrick Horvath’s “Jailbreak” gives up the ghost—or, in this case, both the metaphorical and literal demons of Southbound. A man’s (David Yow) desperate search for his sister has led him to the unnamed town, specifically its dingy dive bar populated by demonic roughnecks. An old west showdown—think the bar sequence in Near Dark—leads him to a lurid tattoo parlor before this segment turns into a particularly hellacious riff on Orpheus and Eurydice’s flight from the underworld. While “Jailbreak” is the film’s weakest segment, it nonetheless captures the suffocating, inevitable despair of its characters, all of whom are longing to escape from whatever hell they’ve forged for themselves but only find themselves trapped, unable to outrun whatever demons haunt them.
In this respect, it’s appropriate that Radio Silence closes the loop with “The Way In,” a brutal segment that finds a family fending off a brutal home invasion. From the start, subtle clues (like a hotel room morphing into a house glimpsed in an earlier segment) begin to confirm what any sharp audience member may have suspected about the film’s spiraling structure. Again, the familiarity is twisted into a boon, as it similarly traps the audience in the same inescapable loop as the characters, who endlessly relive the same regrets and horrors. Looping and recurrence are especially key to “The Way In/Out” duology, both of which imply a cycle of vengeance that has doomed its characters to this existential ring of fire. Suddenly, the cryptic, elliptical opening segment begins to make sense, as “The Way In” fills in its gaps one stab at a time, condemning its characters to their southbound route all over again.
Southbound runs the gamut in satisfying the anthology format’s variety quotient: everything from jaw-ripping wraiths to repulsive cult sacrifices are represented, with each plunging audiences further into these purgatorial depths. Technically, it’s an omnibus without a frame, yet every segment effortlessly flows together, tethered by the filmmakers’ cohesive grasp of tone, theme, and structure. Ultimately, Southbound is united under a vast desert sky that stretches for eternity in all directions, resulting in a landscape that’s akin to a snake eating its own tail. For a film that seems to be consciously in the shadow of its anthology predecessors, it’s fitting that it ultimately echoes Dead of Night in its coiling, nightmarish configuration—it’s something of a puzzle box crafted with blood and lamentations of lost souls forever barreling down an empty highway, never to arrive at their final destination.
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