*. I wasn’t expecting much. Southbound is another anthology horror from a bunch of the same people that brought us the underwhelming V/H/S, so my expectations were low. Very low. But Southbound is pretty good.
*. As with any anthology horror there are some weak links. And the framing narrative, which is actually part of the story and encircles the action like a stuffed-crust pizza shell, is problematic. But overall I really enjoyed what was on tap. Here’s a quick breakdown of the line-up.
*. “The Way Out”: a couple of guys are fleeing a bunch of floating lich-like entities that were apparently patterened after the Grim Reaper and which will reappear throughout the film, hovering in the background. I quite liked this episode, as the Reapers are interesting to look at and there’s a frantic sense of discombobulation to the action. The pair seem trapped in a twilight zone where the categories of time and space have become flexible and evil is always on the hoof.
*. “Siren”: a girl band gets picked up by a couple of devil worshippers. This all played out as pretty obvious to my eyes, though there’s a bit of humour mixed in. That humour, however, is also obvious, riffing on the perfect 1950s domestic Eden that is actually hell just under the surface. They even replay that old stand-by of the family meal that is disturbing in both its formal hospitality and suspicious main course.
*. “The Accident”: perhaps the best episode. A man named Lucas hits a girl with his car on the highway and has to perform surgery on her himself while being talked through the operation by a trio of demonic voices on his cellphone. Original, and creepy.
*. “Jailbreak”: a man named Danny tries to rescue his sister from hell but she doesn’t want to be saved. Simple but too enigmatic for its own good.
*. “The Way In”: home invasion horror as a bunch of masked men slaughter a family. Most of it plays a bit like The Strangers (which they apparently had in mind), and it’s not that interesting until it becomes weird, though I wouldn’t want to conflate being weird with being interesting. It turns out (spoiler alert) that two of the masked men are the two guys from the first episode, and their killing of the family is what unleashed the Reapers.
*. So, as I said, the frame wraps us in a circle. Except it doesn’t make sense. It’s not really a loop but a Möbius strip. This is a point that’s foreshadowed in a scene in the first episode where the two guys drive away from a gas station and then keep coming back to it. Things don’t make sense along this stretch of road.
*. They don’t make sense and they’re not going to be explained. This may be the aspect of Southbound that got the most attention. There’s a lack of information as to what is going on in the various (semi-linked) stories, with the creators wanting to find a balance between letting the audience know too much and leaving things open to their imagination. So we never find out what happened to Alex, for example, or to Kathryn.
*. I’m not against them going in this direction and I’ll admit the mystery does have a certain appeal. Perhaps it’s better to have no explanation than a really stupid explanation for what’s going on. What I don’t like about it is that it’s too easy. Instead of having to work things out it’s just a bunch of weird stuff happening and random Easter egg-style correspondences that suggest some greater coherence without having to actually create that coherence in the script.
*. Thematically what unifies most of the stories is payback for some unexpiated sense of guilt. Atonement. Redemption maybe. The two guys at the beginning are killers who were in turn avenging whatever was done to Kathryn. Sadie is guilty for what she did to Alex. Lucas, I guess, has to pay for killing Sadie. The fact that he gets away at the end, however, suggests that he may have just been an instrument of fate. The man rescuing his sister is mistaken in doing so because his sister has committed a crime and thus must do her time.
*. So we may not be in hell but, and this is how the creators describe it, purgatory. Except it really doesn’t seem like purgatory at all. I don’t think there’s any way you can square what’s happening with a theology, so that seems to be another angle that’s just being vaguely suggested. I mean Jem dies but is presumably innocent of whatever crimes her parents were involved in. Sadie’s bandmates seem in the same boat. Danny is punished just for messing with forces he doesn’t understand. I guess.
*. The genre of anthology horror is not a particularly distinguished one. Recently it has become home to a lot of cheap, experimental, loosely-assembled collections of quickies (think of the P.O.E. or ABCs of Death series). Southbound is quite a bit better than this. The frame business strikes me as a little too cute in its suggestiveness, extending to the mysterious DJ who provides a kind of moralistic commentary. They’ve set themselves up well for a sequel, but I actually hope they let it go and stick to their guns about not giving us any more in the way of explanation as to what’s going on. I think they’ve painted themselves into a bit of a corner in that regard and in any event it works well enough as a one off.