Screenplay: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin (The Way Out & The Way In); Roxanne Benjamin and Susan Burke (Siren); David Bruckner (The Accident); Patrick Horvath and Dallas Hallam (Jailbreak)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #58
Modern anthology films are a conundrum. They can be incredibly rewarding, helping unknown talents get wider attention and given veterans the chance at making another film; I am a sincere fan of the ABCs of Death franchise because they take this to a fully international level where even fans can win a slot into the final films. However there's an issue of whether these shorts lead to feature films as they should logically do - David Bruckner, who does the most interesting segment of Southbound, hasn't directed or co-directed a feature length movie since 2007 and has been mainly doing segments for anthologies like this. That and the fact that quality can vary so much that, if many of the segments fail, it sinks the entire feature around them.
The Way In (Dirs. Radio Silence)
Southbound is an anthology with a paranormal Americana as an aesthetic, all the segments set on the same day, weaving between each other, within the same area of desert environment which is entirely within a pocket dimension, existing out of time and entirely demonic. The result is an attempt at a deliberately surreal and unconventional tone with the whole film, as people find themselves trapped within unconventional scenarios, cult director Larry Fessenden as the voice of the radio who makes cryptic proclamations of the events about to take place.
The full anthology is a mixed bag. Tonally it has a consistent, intriguing sense of isolation within its setting, but the stories themselves fail to capitalise on this tone for the most part or don't actually end properly, abruptly finishing. Radio Silence's two bookends really diverge from the rest of the stories from the get-go, away from the more mysterious and interesting threats to full on CGI skeleton-squid hybrids. Like their entry for V/H/S (2012), I don't like Radio Silence's use of computer effects at all, incredibly plastic creations against the real backdrops and actors. What starts as a potentially good opening - two men arrive at a diner terrified, with one of them bleeding from a stab wound from the stomach and something following them in the distance - turns into a damp squib.
Siren (Dir. Roxanne Benjamin)/Jailbreak (Dir. Patrick Horvath)
The other issue is that most of the stories are vague without intrigue to them and, as mentioned, have no real endings at all. The tone of rural America of diners, truck stops and small towns is perfect for a horror story, evoking the fear of being stranded from the outside world within long abandoned environments decaying internally, a type of setting constantly used in horror films as an advantage. The episodes Siren and Jailbreak however make a egregious mistake of not taking this atmosphere far enough. Siren, about a female band who get stuck with a flat tyre and are forced to stay with a creepy older couple, does immediately evoke the Satanic horror films of the seventies like Race with the Devil (1975) but literally crashes without any detail or conclusion to it. Jailbreak, about an older man entering the demonic town to rescue his sister, does have a bit more detail to cherish such as a fascinating twist to how his sister reacts to him appearing, but again it doesn't properly end.
The Accident (Dir. David Bruckner)
The only segment of any interest is The Accident, where a man accidentally runs over a young woman (one from another segment) and attempts to help her in the midst of nowhere through an emergency call operator or two over the phone. It does become more supernatural to a very creepy extent, finding himself in an abandoned emergency ward and the young woman's injuries exceptionally gruesome in their realism, but the short succeeds the most from dealing with a real fear for the viewer, guilt from accidentally harming another and being entirely to blame for it as you attempt to help them. The supernatural element, which becomes a symbol of his guilt and trying to deal with the consequences of his negligence, makes the short the only rewarding one of Southbound.
The Way Out (Dirs. Radio Silence)
Sadly barring The Accident, the whole anthology doesn't succeed, the final segment which connects to the first attempting the greatest risk in having a cylindrical tone, not working due to it starting as a generic home invasion narrative and returning back to the uninteresting The Way In.
As an attempt at an original take on the horror anthology, it never takes a real gamble at being incredibly weird or detailing its existing stories into more rewarding ones, its tone merely a window dressing. The lack of full, interesting stories barring one makes it immensely disappointing in the end.