The forgotten corners of the vastness that is the United States of America have always made for some of horror’s richest settings. That endless night of desolate highways punctuated by forbidding motels, dusty gas stations, lonely diners and the occasional sickly pool of neon is a purgatory from which all manner of shadowy figures can emerge. In movies ranging from Psycho to The Hitcher to Near Dark, filmmakers have tapped this mythic promise to great success. More recently, a group of directors decided to take a stab in that direction with the indie anthology Southbound and, for all the potential pitfalls of the format, managed to assemble a nasty end product that recalls if not quite equals its classic predecessors.
Comprised of segments directed by Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath and the Radio Silence filmmaking collective, Southbound is, like its desert locations, a thing out of time. Drawing heavily on 1980s horror tropes — unsurprising, given that the decade produced the definitive templates for this subgenre — it could easily have been set anywhere between the 1960s and the 2010s, if not for the occasional smartphone or tossed-off bit of millennial slang. Fitting then that all its characters are stuck in spiritual limbo, disconnected from the mainstream of humanity in crucial ways. Loosely but effectively connected by the shared theme of guilt — a device that hearkens back to the old EC Comics with which the film shares artistic DNA — the segments boast a momentum and focus that anthologies often lack.
Drawing heavily on 1980s horror tropes — unsurprising, given that the decade produced the definitive templates for this subgenre — it could easily have been set anywhere between the 1960s and the 2010s, if not for the occasional smartphone or tossed-off bit of millennial slang.
They run the gamut in terms of story angles. Radio Silence provides a wraparound storyline about two desperadoes whose crimes — involving an unsettling home invasion — are simply the latest in a cycle of brutal violence that spawns phantoms literal and metaphorical. In Siren, Benjamin gives us an all-female rock band traveling across the desert only to get a flat tire and a subsequent offer to overnight at the home of a passing family in thrall to a, well, unusual belief system. That story informs David Horvath’s inventive, disgusting and darkly hilarious The Accident, in which a distracted driver hits a woman on a nighttime highway and then, with the dubious help of a creepy 911 operator, attempts to put her wrecked body back together again in an abandoned hospital. Next up, Patrick Horvath’s Jailbreak, the weakest link in this narrative chain, still manages to provide some effective gore and a deranged protagonist in former Jesus Lizard frontman David Yow. Set in the same seemingly empty town as the previous segment’s hospital, it pulls back the lens a little to indicate that, yes, the town is likely empty…except for (and maybe because of) the vicious shapeshifters that hang out at the local bar. Yow plays an unstable and shotgun-wielding nomad searching for his long-lost sister and receiving a somewhat unexpected reaction once he finds her.
The film is awash in atmosphere, its dried-out desert locations the inferno that burns this particular slice of Americana down to its naked id. Much to the enjoyment of this gorehound, it more than fulfills indie horror’s basic requirements for graphic imagery — The Accident alone is a nifty bit of body horror by way of slapstick. Most importantly though, every sequence is tightly conceived and devoid of padding, hurtling towards perverse destinations by way of some memorable characters and deliciously ironic twists that call back to those beloved EC Comics or, another undoubted inspiration, The Twilight Zone. Amid all the mordant humor and gruesome hi-jinks, however, there is a pinch of seriousness in the source of all that horror. Southbound literalizes the weight of transgression, giving a hideous face to the burdens we all carry around on a daily basis, some more than others. You know what they say about objects in the rear view mirror.