Guest Review by P. Hurley
Southbound (2016). Directed by Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, and Radio Silence. Written by Roxanne Benjamin, Matt Bennelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Susan Burke, Dallas Hallam, and Patrick Horvath. Willowbrook Regent Films, 89 minutes.
Synopsis: Interlocking tales of highway terror revolve around malevolent spirits at a truck stop, a mysterious traveler, a car accident and a home invasion. (imdb.com)
“Fuck this shit. Let’s go home.”
This film is an anthology in which the stories and characters are interwoven, taking place in a nameless town (as it’s a horror film, you can probably guess the name) on a nameless highway (save that it’s going south) in a nameless part of the southwest United States (most probably Nevada). It tells four stories of people who are unfortunate enough to drive through (and stop in) this neck of the woods, and documents their various fates.
The first tale, “The Way Out,” tells of two disheveled friends (Matt Bennellli-Olpin and Chad Villella) who have obviously had a rough night, and stop by a café/motel that won’t let them leave. The second, “Siren,” shows three women (Fabienne Therese, Nathalie Love, and Hannah Marks), members of an indie rock band, who are unfortunate enough to get a flat tire on a deserted highway, and are picked up by a seemingly friendly (yet unnerving) couple offering help. The third tale, “The Accident,” involves average nice guy Lucas (Mather Zickel) involved in an accident, who tries to make amends and is possibly traumatized in the process. The fourth, “Jailbreak,” follows its protagonist (Davey Johnson) frantically looking in the nameless town for his sister (Tipper Newton) for the last 13 years and, upon finding her, realizes that she’s where she wants to be. The final tale “The Way In,” follows father Raymond (Dana Gould), his wife Cait (Kate Beahan),and presumably 18 year old daughter Jem (Hassie Harrison), who are away at a rented apartment on vacation, facing a home invasion from unseen assailants.
For me, when anthology films come to mind, I think of the old Hammer/Amicus horror films of the 60s and 70s (usually starring Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing) such as Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, or Torture Garden, which were based largely on the 1950s horror comics of William M. Gaines. Most of these films tended to be rather low-budget stories of violence or revenge, and had mostly supernatural overtones, only linked together by a “Storytelling MC” of sorts (Ralph Richardson’s Crypt Keeper in Tales from the Crypt, Burgess Meredith as the Carnival Barker in Torture Garden, etc.). The stories were rather predictable morality tales, substituting punchlines or bad puns for plot resolution, and for the most part had acting in which the players were essentially phoning it in for a paycheck (this was Christopher Lee before The Wicker Man, LotR, and Tim Burton, after all). Such films more or less faded away when both Hammer and Amicus went defunct by the mid-70s, but had been revived by such 80s outings as Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside: The Movie and, more recently, such films as the entertaining 4bia and the interesting (if uneven) V/H/S series.
Having heard nothing about this film before seeing it, I watched it not expecting much (while I had found the older anthology films entertaining when I was 11, well… the fact is, I was 11!). Indeed, the film itself treads very little new ground. There are a few Lovecraftian tropes seen in short stories such as The Call of Cthulhu and Shadow Over Innsmouth (deranged cultists, the town with inhabitants becoming more monstrous as the story goes on, the protagonists which try to get away from danger only to come back to the same place they were trying to leave again and again…etc.). “The Way In” is perhaps the most re-hashed, using the “home invasion” scenario seen in film outings such as The Strangers, The Purge and the brilliant You’re Next. As far as originality points go, Southbound has very little to offer.
That being said, this is probably one of the better horror films I have seen in the last year or so, not for any originality but rather for presentation as well as the acting (which, when compared with acting in most horror films, is pretty good). Both of these aspects certainly kept me watching. First is the fact that this film doesn’t have any “Crypt Keeper” interludes that would make the whole film slightly ridiculous. The tales, while very loosely interwoven, are nevertheless connected in a way as to go smoothly enough into the next story after the previous one has ended. There is a “radio DJ” whom the viewer hears at the beginning of each story (evidently doing his best to sound like a cross between Vincent Price and Clancy Brown), but it’s heard coming off the radio in a slightly muted volume, which makes it more atmospheric than the main focus of attention.
Lovecraftian style has always been part of the horror film genre, but one has to remember that only very rarely has it been presented particularly well, and most “Lovecraftian” horror films tend to fall flat due to their clumsiness (The Mist and In the Mouth of Madness being the two exceptions to this rule). Southbound manages to get the Lovecraft elements which it uses right. In “The Way Out,” there is a sense of dread when Mitch and Jack try to get home but keep coming back to the same truck stop they left only a few moments previously again and again, all the while being followed by a malevolent entity. It might not be original, but it’s done well. The occultism of “Siren” is played out in an understated way that isn’t seen much in other films which tend to go over the top in this respect. “Jailbreak” lets the protagonist—as well as the audience–know that he is in a place where he is NOT welcome, and the surroundings become less “normal” and increasingly alien as the story progresses (albeit with no CGI whatsoever). Indeed, the best part of the final (and weakest) tale “The Way In” is the Lovecraftian imagery that, while some might see as random, nevertheless elevates this story from a carbon copy of The Strangers to something that allows the film to go out with a bang. As well as Lovecraftian themes, there are also those which relate to freewill. In all of the stories, nothing seems predestined, and everything relies on the decisions that the various characters make.
That being said, the movie doesn’t make the mistake that a lot of horror films do of predicating these stories on a set of stupid decisions that even the most obtuse of viewers wouldn’t think of doing (i.e. stupid teenager decides to do X, which causes Y to happen, resulting in the gruesome deaths of he and all of his friends save for his virgin girlfriend who was saving herself for when they got married). All of the decisions, for the most part, save the first and final stories, are pretty much based within the realm of human behavior that can be considered relatable to the viewer. The rock trio of “Siren,” due to their flat tire, has no choice but to go with the polite but spooky couple (this is after all, the Highway to Hell, you never know what might come onto the road when it gets dark). Lucas, the protagonist of “The Accident,” (the best story, in my opinion) is trying by hook or by crook to make things right by attempting to ameliorate his horrible (if unintentional) mistake, and has no choice but to find help from whatever source he can (even if it is from interests who know the game is rigged). Dale, the protagonist of “Jailbreak,” has been searching for his beloved sister for years, and knows that, in some way, she’s imprisoned (he hopes unwillingly), and decides to go into the situation, quite literally, guns blazing. This all creates a sense of desperation that causes us to feel for the characters (most notably in both “The Accident” as well as “Jailbreak,” in which both Zickel and Johnson do a very good job of playing their respective parts). The last tale, “The Way In” seems to be the only one where the audience, despite understanding the revenge angle of the antagonists, is wondering why in the name of God that Raymond would pick this town of all places to take his wife and daughter on vacation. One can only imagine that he chooses his getaways on some sort of satanic version of Expedia found on the Deep Web (NecrononEconomy.net?).
So if you’re wanting to watch a good little horror film that, for a low budget, certainly holds your interest and is easily available on many an “On Demand” cable package, Southbound might be for you.
 I will not count his role as Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith as part of this comeback.