One of the things I love about horror films is how they both embrace conventions much as they try tearing them to bloody shreds. Trends have often defined the genre, from the old Gothic thrillers of yesteryear, to the heaving cleavage and lush period detail of the Hammer films, to the glut of jerky handheld found footage films of today. There’s something endearing about a genre that has this push-pull adherence to its own set of tropes. It’s what helps to imbue horror movies with such a joyful sense of play, assuming your idea of joy is having the bejeezus scared out of you.The recent revival of the horror anthology (V/H/S, The ABCs of Death, et cetera) has been a welcome treat, giving a number of emerging filmmakers a venue to try out new tricks and experiment with how to pull the genre in new ways. Sometimes those experiments fail, but one dudder in a larger film doesn’t necessarily hamper the entire piece.
Horror lends itself really well to short stories – possibly because that element of spooky play depends upon quick shifts of perspective and tone. We’ll forgive a ridiculous payoff as long as it delivers the goods. A scary story doesn’t need to explain itself with the kind of clarity we might demand from other genres. Ambiguity and dream logic often tend to enhance, rather than detract, from the experience.
Which brings us to Southbound, a collaboration between four sets of directors, using one main location (the American southwest) and stories that link directly from one to the other: two men on the run from some supernatural force; a trio of rock and roll girls who take an ill-advised ride when their car breaks down; a hit-and-run that results in one man forced to perform surgery on his victim; a brother in search of a long-lost sister who probably should have stayed lost; and a home invasion gone terribly awry.
The five interconnected stories all work really well as premises, but due to the relatively brief running time of the feature (90 minutes), the stories tend to extinguish themselves just as they’re gaining some kind of traction. In some instances, the climactic payoff is enough to cap the story off; in others we’re left wanting more.
Due to their brevity, what pushes each story along is that aforementioned surreal dream-logic. Characters are pushed from situation to situation, and pulled more by fate than their own actions. This is apparent from the very first vignette helmed by the trio Radio Silence (who’d also worked on the effective Halloween segment in V/H/S), featuring a bloodied duo in a car pursued by supernatural forces in the desert, and who can’t seem to escape returning to the same diner, despite their best intentions.
Southbound is successful in reinforcing the cyclical nature of its horrors: we are forever sentenced to repeat the same steps no matter how much we try to better ourselves. Nowhere is the film’s ideology of doomed, criss-crossing paths more sublimely presented than in the way-cool poster, depicting strips of desert roads that form a pentagram.
Although helmed by different directors, the movie has a visual consistency, thanks to that great backlot which is the American southwest. The endless stretches of remote desert only serve to isolate our protagonists, with an unforgiving landscape that is threatening whether sun-baked and festooned with jagged Joshua trees, or the eerie cloak of night. The movie is also unified by an effective, synth-driven score courtesy of The Gifted, which recalls John Carpenter’s work, and even Rich Vreeland’s recent terror music for It Follows.
It’s not a game changer, and doesn’t quite reach the crazy highs of some of the instalments in the recent V/H/S movies (nor does it sink to any particular lows, either). But there’s meat on them bones, and Southbound’s brand of southern fried chicken is worth a gnaw.