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Horror Film 'Southbound' Is A Demonic Detour Worth Taking

By Joel Wicklund in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 5, 2016 8:07PM

Chad Villella and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin in "Southbound.' (Photo courtesy of The Orchard.)

From the top-flight entertainment of Trick 'r Treat to the feeble locker room humor of Chillerama, the horror anthology film has enjoyed a recent resurgence. Fortunately, Southbound lands on the positive side of that spectrum. There are some missteps, but a good dose of macabre humor and some truly eerie moments make the movie a pleasurable road trip to terror.

And a road trip it is, with each story beginning on a desolate desert highway leading travelers to an unwanted detour. The movie grabs your attention immediately with two blood-spattered drivers on the run in a tale that bookends the anthology. How the drivers arrived at this harrowing spot isn't revealed until near the end of the film, but initially we do see what they are fleeing from: winged, skeletal demons. These frightening figures rank as one of the best creature designs of recent years.

Each story seamlessly transitions to the next. The second tale follows a hard-partying, all-girl rock band whose members become guests at a most sinister neighborhood gathering. The third concerns an inattentive driver who hits a woman on the road and drives her to a small town hospital where things get really weird and gory. In the fourth chapter, a man's search for his long-lost sister takes him to a grim saloon that turns out to be more of a hot spot than expected. Finally, a new spin on the home invasion thriller wraps a neat narrative bow on the whole package.

Helping thread the tales together are foreboding announcements from a D.J., fittingly voiced by filmmaker Larry Fessenden (Habit, Wendigo), mentor to many in the indie horror world and also one of the creators of the terrific audio anthology series, Tales from Beyond the Pale.

"Southbound' (Photo courtesy of The Orchard.)

Different directors helmed each segment in Southbound, as was the case with 2012's V/H/S. The filmmaking collective Radio Silence and David Bruckner (The Signal) directed segments for both films, while first-time director Roxanne Benjamin served multiple production roles on V/H/S (and the follow-ups V/H/S 2 and V/H/S Viral). But while V/H/S had its moments, it was a mixed bag at best. Southbound is much more fluid stylistically and far more consistent in quality.

Bruckner's segment—the accident story—is the weakest, relying too heavily on an extended gross-out gag. But it's not a failure by any means. The use of increasingly suspect medical advisors pays off beautifully in the story's unsettling conclusion and Mather Zickel (Rachel Getting Married) does a sensational job conveying the frantic driver's increasing sense of bewilderment and betrayal.

Radio Silence's contribution, which brackets the film, benefits not only from its unforgettably ghoulish demons, but by capturing the feel of a real nightmare as the protagonists travel a literal road to nowhere. The sibling rescue episode (directed by Patrick Horvath) has a better build-up than climax, but it delivers a convincingly evil atmosphere and features a suitably intense lead performance from David Yow of Chicago noise rock giants The Jesus Lizard.

The most enjoyable segment is Benjamin's, with the female rockers running up against dark forces. The story has a wonderfully weird Manson Family meets Leave It to Beaver vibe, with comedian and confessed horror movie nerd Dana Gould clearly relishing his role as the center of that twisted group.

A couple of silent movies aside, the British classic Dead of Night (1945) pretty much set the template for the horror anthology, but few since have approached its level of excellence. I'm kind of a sucker for the format, forgiving of some very uneven efforts, but Southbound comes close to hitting on all cylinders. It immediately joins the ranks of Trick 'r Treat as a modern must-see for fans of the style.

Southbound. Directed by Radio Silence, Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner and Patrick Horvath. Written by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Roxanne Benjamin & Susan Burke, David Bruckner, and Patrick Horvath & Dallas Hallam. Starring Mather Zickel, David Yow, Dana Gould, Larry Fessenden, Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Fabianne Therese and others. 89 mins. No MPAA rating.

Opens Friday, February 5 at the Gene Siskel Film Center. On Monday, February 8th, the directors will appear via Skype for a Q&A with Newcity critic Ray Pride.

Southbound will also be available through iTunes and select video-on-demand providers on February 9.