Horror anthology films are often inconsistent in terms of both tone and quality, with segments that often feel like separate, unrelated movies simply packaged together (in some cases because they are). But the filmmakers behind Southbound worked together to create a uniquely seamless anthology, in which one story bleeds into the next so smoothly that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. Despite having different writers, directors, cinematographers and editors, the various segments hold together as a single cohesive movie, a surreal look at the madness that lurks in the Southern California desert.
That’s not to say that the segments don’t have their own individual styles, or that some don’t work better than others. The strongest segment is the one that leans heaviest on dark comedy, directed and co-written by Roxanne Benjamin (a producer on two movies in the V/H/S series, here making her directorial debut). Benjamin follows the members of an all-female rock band as their van breaks down in the middle of the desert, and they accept help from a seemingly friendly middle-aged couple. Naturally, these good Samaritans are more sinister than they appear, and while their evil intentions are predictable, the way that Benjamin portrays them, with a mix of sarcastic humor and straightforward horror, is both disturbing and often quite funny.
The rest of the stories are more tonally consistent, and the one immediately following Benjamin’s segment (and carrying over one of the characters) is the most gruesome. Written and directed by David Bruckner, who worked on the similarly fluid anthology The Signal (as well as the first V/H/S), the increasingly gory story finds a hapless motorist (played by comedy fixture Mather Zickel) going to desperate ends to save the life of a woman he accidentally hit on a deserted stretch of road — and then to even more desperate ends to save his own neck at all costs.
Benjamin’s and Bruckner’s segments most successfully hit the film’s balance of terror and dark wit, while the least successful segment, directed and co-written by Patrick Horvath (The Pact 2), most closely resembles the kind of grubby, direct-to-VOD horror that Southbound otherwise transcends. Filmmaking collective Radio Silence (also veterans of V/H/S) bookends the movie with a story split into two parts, the first an unnerving look at unexplained horror, the second perhaps a bit too much explanation for those preceding horrors. Still, the casually terrifying special effects remain powerful even when the cause for what they depict turns out to be a bit mundane.
On the whole, Southbound is most powerful when its horrors remain mysterious, a sort of outgrowth of the desolation and bleakness of the desert itself. The movie’s various directors and cinematographers all succeed at capturing the dusty beauty and unforgiving harshness of the desert, as well as the rundown, out-of-the-way establishments that populate it. The best horror anthologies (movies like Creepshow and Japanese classic Kwaidan) have a thematic unity that prevails throughout stories that vary in quality, and Southbound accomplishes that even when its storytelling falters. As the narrative rises and falls, the dark mood remains consistent.