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‘Southbound’ and the Anatomy of a Horror Anthology

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Sultry and gravelly, the night DJ rattles on about the highway of our lives like a trucker Cryptkeeper whose puns dried up in the arid desert. The tales weave into each other through the one highly visible and tangible connective tissue of Americans: the road.

Thus begins Southbound, the newest in our modern horror anthology resurgence. Rather than being small stories contained within a shell story like the V/H/S series, or the simple letter-based introductions of The ABCs of Death, Southbound links its segments together in a narrative continuum. Though the DJ’s (Larry Fessenden) dusty musings permeate the movie, his disembodied voice is more linked to the always-present highway than to the character hosts of the Tales from the Crypt’s Cryptkeeper or The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling.

These horror anthologies, particularly Southbound, are collections of student-like short films that combine a horror buff’s clever twist with a nervous screenwriter’s over-explanation. Each segment exists for its fulcrum, everything surrounding the narrative pivot is set dressing. This format usually means that there are two key directions such a story can take: either stay mysterious and craft an oddball world by showing a very detailed snapshot, or extrapolate the twist’s logical conclusion and sociopolitical effects by pushing its fish-out-of-water character further and further into the madness. The latter is the most favored method of The Twilight Zone, as the characters in “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, “To Serve Man” and “Time Enough at Last” (episodes widely regarded as three of the series’ best) face down their extraordinary circumstances with tragic humanity. The former has found much success in “Safe Haven”, the best V/H/S story, as a Blair Witch Project-style short spies on an extremely unsettling Asian cult.

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Often these films’ twists are driven down by the writing around them. Stilted dialogue, amateurish acting and over-explanation (often happening at the ending, as if, in hindsight, the filmmaker wished they’d packed more exposition up front) hinder well-shot and well-directed shorts. Southbound is no exception.

The film opens with “The Way Out”, in which two scruffy young men, covered in blood that’s obviously not their own, are on the run from Guillermo del Toro-style floating ghost skeletons — gothic angels of death. Aside from a fun purgatorial shot of the pair’s truck failing to escape the gravitational pull of a diner-side gas station (coming down the road as soon as it pulls out to leave), constant hinting and repetitive discussion of their situation takes away from what could’ve been a much more effective, quiet eeriness. A delightfully gruesome kill is also quickly undermined by another’s clichéd fate — building on the earlier theme of inescapable Purgatory, he becomes trapped in a Sisyphean hotel room trying to help his daughter.

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The closing chapter, “The Way In”, wrings out the last drops of mystery from the first segment while failing to really tell a story on its own. An almost-college student and her parents are attacked in their vacation home by masked men. The men, after the father for a heinous (implied pedophillac) murder of a child, terrorize the family until revealing that it was the scruffy guys from the opening. As if we were surprised. One accidental death later and we know the whole story of the del Toro skeletons as well, the mystique scrubbed away for the sake of circularity.

“Jailbreak”, the chapter closest to the weird camp of Tales From the Crypt, features a desperate man searching a demon town for his sister. The goofy fun of a monster town and a monster bar is quickly erased by self-serious dialogue and characters that must explicitly let us know they have sins to atone for.

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Yet, two middle segments (one written/directed by Roxanne Benjamin, the other by David Bruckner) tap into unnerving truth with a directorial mastery over implication.

The gorgeously shot “Siren” finds its hungover girl band stranded by a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, at the whims of passing strangers’ mercy. Picked up by an unassuming older couple (the only people whose car these girls would believably enter), they are taken to a desert home for dinner, rest and a spare tire. Sniping hints at buried bitterness, and the fact that something is very wrong in this household, creep from the woodwork slowly enough to hit hard. We get just enough time to become comfortable that the loss of that comfort is immediately tangible. Dinner, the saying of grace before dinner and the aggressive friendliness of their hosts all take the sinister tint of the everyday that works best in realistic horror before culminating in a Witch-like thrumping of adrenaline.

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Immediately following “Siren” is “The Accident”, so-called because it opens with one of the “Siren” stars being hit by a car. The man, played with an intense interiority by Mather Zickel, calls 911. His pauses and hesitations bring you into the character’s thought processes, whether they be the decision to save his victim or abandon her or whether to wipe blood off his hands onto the source’s clothes. The dispatcher and EMT help get Lucas to a hospital in a nearby town, only for him to find it abandoned. A mounting sense of dread rules supreme in the creepy hospital as the disembodied voices from 911 become increasingly untrustworthy. Zickel’s desperation, acceptance and ultimate fate all play with subtlety and defy easy jump scares.

“The Accident” comes closest to the “really makes you think” mystique of The Twilight Zone, with its terse and demonic emergency operators acting as coy devils and angels on their subject’s shoulders. This gem and “Sirens” are definitely worth the price of admission to the film, though the overall verdicts on these anthologies are almost always mixed-positive thanks to the sheer number of different shorts in each collection. Probability errs on the side of the audience enjoying at least one. That the poor quality entries are over quickly, and often have the midnight movie tone of light campy gore, means even if you don’t enjoy the current segment, it’s at least inoffensive and digestible enough to tide you until a genuinely enjoyable story comes along. In this way, these anthologies overcome one of horror’s biggest obstacles. If the director’s approach to the material isn’t to your liking — say he’s too harsh to his characters or revels in gore for gore’s sake — a new direction, even within the confines of the broad horror genre, is just around the corner. That keeps viewers invested no matter where their interest lies on the horror spectrum, be it Monster Squad or Cannibal Holocaust.

From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.

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