Hell by way of an unending stretch of desert highway isn’t a new concept, but the idea may have never been better explored as it is in Southbound, the new anthology that stakes its claim as the first must-see horror film of the year. Seamlessly blending in and out of five short tales with the grace of a ballerina, Southbound offers up an unending, Kafkaesque blend of nightmares and arresting visuals that keep the viewer completely engrossed and grossed out.
In many ways Southbound serves as a spiritual successor to the V/H/S series, as many of the collaborators from those titles return here. However, while V/H/S served as a collection of unrelated shorts held together-often clumsily-by wraparound segments, Southbound aims for a higher degree of narrative cohesion than the standard anthology effort, so much so that it’s easy to forget you’re watching separate entries helmed by different creative teams. Characters from one story become secondary players in the next segment as the baton is passed over. The only constants are the unending stretch of desert highway that lures in travelers with no intention of letting them go, and the dulcet voice of indie stalwart Larry Fessenden serving as the DJ on the lone broadcast terrestrial airwaves pick up.
The Radio Silence team kick off and wrap up the film with their efforts “The Way Out” and “The Way In.” Presented in non-chronological order, the segments concern themselves with two friends on the run from something unexplainable. In Twilight Zone fashion, the pair find themselves unable to escape their surroundings, winding up at the same roadside diner no matter how long or how far they drive away. We see the reason for them being on the run in the final moments as their role shifts from the pursued to pursuers.
Roxanne Benjamin delivers a chilling entry next with Siren, wherein a trio of female garage rockers suffer a flat tire on route to their next gig. Hungover and miles away from civilization, they accept a ride from a square seeming middle aged couple only to find themselves caught up in a dinner party from Hell. Benjamin displays a knack for twisting the deceiving warmth and banality of 1950s conservative culture on its war, and aesthetically the segment would fit right in with the Fallout: New Vegas universe.
David Bruckner delivers the standout segment of the film next with The Accident, where one character from the previous short is run down by a speeding driver too caught up texting his wife to see her in the darkness. Panicked, the driver calls 911 and takes the woman to the local emergency room only to find the hospital abandoned. Thus begins a stomach turning, nail biting series of events where nothing you see or hear can be trusted or believed.
Even the weakest of the five segments, Patrick Horvath’s Jailbreakoffers up a number of chilling moments, and it serves the purpose of offering a potential explanation for the area and the fate of the people that come under its spell.
Overall Southbound is a cracking, smart and engaging work of horror stitched together by influences as disparate as Satre’s No Exit and the Silent Hill video games. It serves as a nasty slice of horror cinema that demands not to be watched, but rewatched repeatedly in order to examine the bindings that keep it all together.