AFI FEST Review: Separate Tales of Savagery Make ‘Southbound’ a Bloody Good Time

GameStop, Inc.

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It’s safe to say that most omnibus horror films are a mixed bag – one or two stand out segments surrounded by a few forgettable shorts. Few, however, are as consistently entertaining as Southbound, an intertwining collection of horror shorts that are each startling in their effectiveness. With one minor exception, Southbound is among one of the finest omnibus horror collections to grace the screen in recent memory, each segment standing out on its own twisted merits. In its own way, Southbound is like a really gory version of The Twilight Zone.

The film opens in medias res, two men with blood liberally sprinkled on their skin and clothes are fleeing in a hurry. At first, the audience isn’t clued in to what these men are fleeing, but we soon learn it’s these darkened spectral beings, ethereally floating over the dry southwestern desert. Without revealing what happens to the two men, they wind up at a roadside hotel where their story ends and the next one begins. Southbound follows this interconnecting story model throughout, including the story of an all-girl rock band who encounter mysterious Satanists following a flat tire; a man who can’t find help after a brutal hit and run; a brother trying to rescue his missing sister from a possible cult; and a simple suburban family terrorized by violent intruders.

Southbound works so well because it moves at a break-neck pace and most of the segments are thoroughly entertaining. The one segment, however, that I found underwhelming was the shortest of them all, so it’s not like it drags down the rest of the film. Each of the segments have their own distinct look and feel, but are never a jarring departure from the film’s overall aesthetic. That’s an impressive feat for a film with four directors – Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, and Radio Silence (itself a group of three filmmakers) – and six credited writers – Benjamin, Bruckner, Horvath, Susan Burke, Dallas Richard Hallam, and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin.

Hands down, the two best segments of Southbound comprise the middle of the film. The second segment with the trio rockin’ girls is a smart exercise in escalating creepiness with a sharp undercurrent of dark humor, aided by a wonderful (though brief) supporting turn by comedian Dana Gould. These three women find themselves in a time warp, with this idyllic suburbanite family living in the middle of nowhere yet seemingly trapped in a world from the ‘50s. This segment leads right into the hit-and-run segment, where a lone man and a 911 operator try to save the life of someone whom the man had just hit with his middle class Volkswagen. Within this segment we see a healthy mix of genuine tension and unease punctuated with some gruesome gore. These two segments comprise the best of Southbound, diving into horror clichés with gleeful aplomb.

As this sprawling series of horror tales, Southbound works because it moves so well and confidently through some familiar territory, though it never approaches trying to explain too much of the mythology that ties these stories together. It’s multiple writers and directors know that over-explaining horror diminishes the returns of terror because understanding why something exists is much less terrifying than the unknown. The weaker segments of Southbound are still pretty good, but the best segments are what makes Southbound such a fun time through a horror anthology with their mix of black humor, gut-wrenching suspense, and abundance of blood.

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