Anthology horror films come in many forms. At their simplest, they just place their different episodes one after the other (Kwaidan, 1964; Three, 2002; Little Deaths, 2011), perhaps with a wraparound story (Creepshow, 1982; Tales From The Darkside: The Movie, 1990; V/H/S, 2012), or a more arbitrary structuring device (The ABCs of Death, 2012; Tales of Halloween, 2015), to lend a sense of overarching coherence. Sometimes they tell one continuous story, but divide it between different directors working in different styles and subgenres (The Signal, 2007). And occasionally, at their most complex, they interweave their separate stories, Short Cuts-style, into a criss-crossing, Moebian totality that is bigger than its parts – like Trick ‘r Treat (2007), A Christmas Horror Story (2015) and now Southbound.
The first story in Southbound, directed by the filmmaking quartet ‘Radio Silence’ (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez and Chad Villella), is also, paradoxically, the last. Programmatically foregrounding the circular narrative path that the overall film will take, The Way Out opens in medias res, with two blood-soaked men (Chad Villella and writer Matt Bettinelli-Olpin) driving in confusion and terror. Pursued by hovering grim reapers, the duo loops back again and again to the same gas station and motel, despite always moving forward down a straight-seeming road – until eventually one of the men decides to stop running, and enters a motel room in pursuit of a lost daughter who is always tantalisingly just out of reach.
All the themes outlined here – guilt, punishment, entrapment, limbo, demons, choice and the elusive possibility of redemption – will recur in the film’s other stories, each set on the same stretch of lost highway in the middle of an American nowhere. Roxanne Benjamin’s Siren sees a trio of young female jazz musicians breaking down on the road. As they end up spending a long weird night with the damned, Sadie (Fabianne Therese) tries to work through her regrets and denials over what happened to the band’s fourth member, and, unlike her friends, makes a bid to retrace her steps.
David (The Signal) Bruckner’s The Accident follows a man (Mather Zickel) making all the right ethical choices after being involved in a hit-and-run, but still descending for a time into a hospital-set hell – with his crime (paying too much attention to his mobile phone while on the road) meeting with a matching punishment. Patrick Horvath’s Jailbreak sees a middle-aged man (David Yow) desperately trespassing where he definitely should not be in the hope of recovering his long lost sister (Tipper Newton) – and refusing to accept that she has in fact found the exact place where she belongs. Finally, Radio Silence returns with The Way In, in which a couple are on a country holiday to celebrate their daughter’s entry to university, only to find themselves under attack from masked assailants with a horrific score to (un)settle and collateral damage to spare.
Abstract and eerily incomplete, Southbound unfolds in a place where Marienbad heads south to the Twilight Zone and Dead End, and where moral failings collide with macabre consequences. Besides the voice of Larry Fessenden’s DJ and songs which are heard on the radio, certain other sounds (knocks, rumbles) and locations bleed through the different stories’ connective tissue, as do frequent glimpses of the similarly purgatorial Carnival of Souls (1962) playing (on repeat) in the background.
“Fuck this shit!” are the opening words heard in Southbound, “Let’s go home.” It is a nostalgic desire to return to an Eden that has long since been shattered by these characters’ actions or inactions. “When are you coming home?”, the wife of the driver in The Accident asks him over the phone, unaware that, if he comes back at all, he will be forever scarred by his trip – whereas in Jailbreak, the sister is reluctant ever to return to a home that she herself destroyed. For Southbound is an infernal road movie where everyone, chased by personal demons, wonders if there really can be “a way out”. Finding your own way out of the film’s infuriating spaghetti junction of narrative cul-de-sacs and byroads is indeed a challenge, but no punishment. For it offers both the variety of a multi-authored anthology, and the continuity of a tightly constructed feature – and as to whether it ultimately takes you to a place of bottomless despair or dawning hope, the choice is yours.
Southbound is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Elevation Sales, 8th August 2016