Heartless evildoers receiving their ironic comeuppance have been a horror staple since the days of EC Comics. The new indie horror anthology Southbound puts a contemporary spin on this tradition, presenting five tales of irreversible decisions and their gruesome consequences. Sometimes the lessons in these mini-morality plays are ploddingly obvious—especially when Larry Fessenden explicitly explains them in his cameo role as a radio DJ—but then again, the same can be said for Tales From The Crypt.
Set against the bleak landscape of the Southwestern desert, the segments overlap on several levels. Besides the Monty Python-style transitions, in which characters from one episode appear in the next, the movie also maintains a certain stylistic consistency throughout, which has its pluses (the segments share a timeless feel, à la Bates Motel) and minuses (shaky hand-held camerawork is an unfortunate constant). Regardless, that cohesion is a credit to the creative forces behind the film, and a welcome change from the wild inconsistencies of recent horror anthologies like the ABCs Of Death series.
Some segments are more memorable than others, of course. Southbound starts off strong with the surreal, Twilight Zone-esque “The Way Out,” directed by four-man filmmaking collective Radio Silence. The segment opens with two men fleeing sinister, Grim Reaper-type creatures who pull over at a dusty gas station where a bored-looking clerk is watching Night Of The Living Dead on TV. Soon it becomes obvious that there will be no escape from the gas station or the monsters—creative, well-executed CGI hybrids of bat, human, and insect encased in pod-like exoskeletons.
From there we transition into another standout segment, “Siren,” by first-time director Roxanne Benjamin. As in “The Way Out,” the story starts on a dusty desert road, where the members of all-female rock trio The White Tights are arguing about what to do after their van breaks down. Then a square-looking couple pulls up and offers them a ride; only singer Sadie (Fabianne Therese) seems to distrust the couple’s intentions, even after they start making creepy references to the mysterious recent death of The White Tights’ fourth member. Like Sadie, most viewers will know something is wrong with these perky weirdos right away. But Benjamin brings a quirky directorial flair—including casting comedian Dana Gould as a warlock—that makes “Siren” the fun kind of creepy. Hopefully her feature debut is coming soon.
Things start to take a turn around the third segment, David Bruckner’s “Accident,” a gruesome bit of body horror that’s equally memorable for its originality and its sadism. Opening with a graphic scene of a young woman being mowed down on a dark desert highway, the segment follows Lucas (Mather Zickel), the doughy middle-aged driver of the car, as he tries to save her life. Here the irreversible decision is not in the past, but before our eyes as Lucas calls 911 to report the accident, the woman twitching and spitting blood at his feet, only to receive an increasingly twisted series of instructions from the paramedics on the phone. It’s a clever conceit, albeit a sick one. Gorehounds will love it.
The last two segments are also the most forgettable, even with the presence of ex-Jesus Lizard madman David Yow in Patrick Horvath’s “Jailbreak.” Danny (Yow himself) is searching for his missing sister, a mission that leads him to an occult watering hole in a shithole desert town. Forcing his way to her hiding place at gunpoint, he discovers that his heroic efforts have all been in vain. Finally, we wrap back around with another Radio Silence segment, “The Way In,” which takes some of the intrigue out of the opening scenes by adding a derivative, pointlessly brutal home-invasion backstory. Tacking the weakest segments onto the end of the film may leave some viewers exiting the theater with a shrug, but the interesting bits are original enough to stick.