Southbound takes viewers on a cerebral metaphysical journey down a stretch of highway that, despite being recognizably located in the American southwest is in all other respects otherworldly and alien. Its handful of protagonists try to navigate the film’s obstacle course of monsters, cults, and hauntings and make it through the night alive.
In a post V/H/S world, the anthology horror film as a concept isn’t necessarily new or interesting in itself, and with three films in the aforementioned series and two ABCs of Death films since 2012 there’s no shortage of this type of film in the horror landscape. Southbound sets itself apart in that rather than being made up of disparate segments unified by one “frame narrative” backbone, the filmmakers behind Southbound crafted a film whose segments, while distinct, flow seamlessly together and maintain the same thematic and aesthetic tones. In fact the transition between segments isn’t always clear, as characters from one mini-narrative cross paths and tag in new characters like a paranormal relay race.
That being said each team of filmmakers brings a unique flavor to their respective segments, ensuring that the film never settles down or goes flat. The middle segment, “The Accident” (written and directed by David Bruckner) is especially distinct, bringing grotesque body horror effects to a film that was previously mostly psychological, as its protagonist, a businessman driving home late at night, takes instructions from a sadistic individual who may or may not be a legitimate 911 operator. This segment borrows a character from the previous segment, which centers around a girl band that find themselves in the home of a married couple who turn out to be much more sinister than their straight laced exteriors would suggest). Entitled “Siren,” this segment is the directorial debut of V/H/S and V/H/S 2 producer Roxanne Benjamin.
While the film’s effects are nothing spectacular, Southbound benefits from imagining Twilight Zone-esque scenarios that terrify on a psychological and existential level more so than a primal one, meaning the necessity for special effects at all is relatively low. The spectral monsters in the first segment (“The Way Out,” directed by filmmaking quartet Radio Silence) are wispy, floating things that looks both skeletal and botanical, and while they are imaginatively designed their actual execution looks intensely digital in a way that lessens their impact. Much more successful are the practical effects used in “The Accident,” where the mutilation of very convincing prosthetics is guaranteed to make viewers squirm. Overall Southbound knows its budgetary limitations and takes its time, building up psychological tension with creative and surreal storylines and without any excess of action or visual effects.
Southbound is a twisted take on the road movie, imagining a series of journeys where things go horribly, impossibly wrong. Running out of gas, blowing a tire, and a collision with something that runs in front of a car on the highway provide relatable inciting incidents before taking a turn into the supernatural. In this way the film’s atmosphere is both familiar and eerily metaphysical, turning the Mojave desert roads into something uncanny. While some segments are stronger than others, Southbound is a solid anthology of horror shorts without a single flop.