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Southbound

D: Radio Silence, Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath / 89m

Cast: Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Fabianne Therese, Nathalie Love, Hannah Marks, Susan Burke, Davey Johnson, Mather Zickel, David Yow, Tipper Newton, Matt Peters, Gerald Downey, Kate Beahan, Hassie Harrison, Larry Fessenden

The anthology has been a staple of the horror movie genre going back as far as Ealing’s Dead of Night (1945). This latest offering, a portmanteau of five interlocking stories – The Way Out, Siren, The Accident, Jailbreak, and The Way In – offers a range of competing terrors, and predictably, some are better than others.

We begin with Mitch (Villella) and Jack (Bettinelli-Olpin), speeding through the desert night, both of them covered in blood and anxiously looking behind them as they travel, on the look out for what is revealed to be a group of winged skeletal figures. These figures are still following them when they reach a gas station with a motel round the back. The two men take time to clean themselves up, but when they leave find that the road now brings them back to the gas station… again and again… and the skeletal figures are closing in.

From the motel in back we follow the efforts of three young women, Sadie (Therese), Ava (Marks), and Kim (Love), as they head towards their next gig. There should be four of them but their friend Alex died recently, something for which Sadie accepts some of the blame for not keeping their friend safe. When they find themselves stranded at the side of the road after a tire blows, a lift from a passing couple (Burke, Johnson) should be the answer to their prayers but instead Sadie’s friends begin acting strangely, and she discovers that they’re all in the hands of a group of devil worshippers.

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Sadie manages to get away but in doing so has a fateful encounter with Lucas (Zickel) (which the trailer gives away unfortunately). Lucas is on his way home but soon finds himself needing to get Sadie to the nearest town. Receiving instructions via his cell phone from the emergency services, Lucas finds the local hospital, but what he finds there is far from what he’s expecting, and the night takes an even more bizarre turn for the worse, worse enough that Lucas may never leave the town ever again.

Lucas’s tale gives way to that of Danny (Yow), a man in search of his missing sister, Jessie (Newton). He abducts a bartender (Peters) and forces him to take him to where he believes his sister is being held against her will. Along the way he learns about the true nature of the people Jessie has chosen to live amongst, and that his determination to find her has terrible consequences.

In the last segment we meet a family made up of Daryl (Downey), his wife Cait (Beahan), and their daughter, Jem (Harrison). They’re on a family vacation before Jem goes off to college, and they’ve rented a house. As they prepare to have dinner, three masked men show up outside before forcing their way in. Daryl is their target, and it soon becomes clear that the men are there out of revenge for something he’s done.

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Any portmanteau movie stands and falls on the quality of its individual stories, and Southbound is no different. The Way Out throws the viewer into the middle of an escape from supernatural creatures that it makes no attempt to explain. Mitch and Jack have done something bad – that we can guess – but the sparseness of the dialogue allied with the striking visuals used to depict the skeletal entities leaves any exposition unnecessary. This is the stuff of nightmares, and the viewer is forced to go along with it all and hope for answers later. (Observant readers will already have gathered that the final segment, The Way In, is more directly linked than the other episodes, and so it proves.)

Siren drops the ball however, its tale of desert-based devil worshippers proving clumsy both in its construction and its presentation. Writer/director Benjamin aims for eerie but never quite achieves the right tone. A dinner party that should be chilling thanks to the behaviour of everyone but the three friends is muted thanks to the generic set up and unfulfilled sense of menace. It’s further hampered by the unconvincing performances of Love and Marks, a poorly choreographed and framed scene in which the cultists induct Sadie’s friends around a fire pit, and the ease with which Sadie escapes a bear trap.

The Accident more than makes up for Siren‘s shortcomings, though, and is the movie’s stand out segment, a squirm-inducing tale of punishment and body horror that employs some truly excellent special effects and is the sort of tale that wouldn’t have been out of place in an old Tales of the Crypt comic book. It’s a sweaty, claustrophobic, blood-drenched episode, with an equally sweaty performance from Zickel that overcomes the segment’s only failing, that being the ease with which Lucas performs certain tasks with only the barest of encouragement to persuade him.

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Jailbreak and The Way In aren’t able to match the intensity of David Bruckner’s ballsy contribution, and although the rest of the movie isn’t quite the anti-climax it might seem, Patrick Horvath’s tale of unfortunate brotherly devotion is too slight to work effectively and feels like an under-developed Twilight Zone episode, while The Way In brings the movie back to where it started with a home invasion tale gone horribly, terribly wrong. These are acceptable as stand-alone segments but lack the edge needed to make them more memorable within the confines of the movie as a whole.

Eagle eyed viewers will spot clues and references to each of the segments popping up here and there, indicating the characters are trapped in some kind of purgatorial existence that they’re all doomed to repeat, and there are cameos from the skeletal creatures. Budgetary constraints hold the movie back however, though the majority of the performances fit well with the stories on offer, with Zickel grabbing the lion’s share of the acting plaudits. That said, the lonely desert landscapes are used to good effect, and the photography – by Tarin Anderson, Tyler Gillett, Alexandre Naufel, and Andrew Shulkind – is exemplary throughout, blending the action of each vignette into a surprisingly cohesive whole. And the whole thing is topped off by a gravelly, ominous voice over by Fessenden as a radio DJ who, if you listen closely, seems to know exactly what’s happening… and why.

Rating: 7/10 – despite some obvious flaws, Southbound is a largely effective and inventive horror anthology that does its best to offer jaded audiences something at least a little different; it succeeds for the most part thanks to the makers’ decision to link each of the stories in clever and intriguing ways, and by imbuing each tale with a satisfying sense of dread.

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