When the inventive and frightening V/H/S was released in 2012, it breathed life into both the found footage and the anthology subgenres. The film was among the best of its kind, a collection of five loosely-connected spooky stories, and it had tremendous sequel potential. Most franchises die because the writers run out of ways to keep the convoluted plot going (looking at you, Saw), but with an anthology, new filmmakers can come aboard to tell unique tales every year. V/H/S 2 didn’t disappoint, living up to the first movie’s legacy and arguably improving upon it. Would this be our next iconic horror series to define a generation?
That question was answered in 2014 when V/H/S Viral came along to crush all of our hopes and dreams. This third installment abandoned the realistic, urban legend aesthetic of its predecessors in favor of silly, uninteresting segments about magic capes and alternate dimensions where humans have monster genitals. Just like that, the franchise was destroyed. No plans for V/H/S 4 are currently underway. But good news! The geniuses behind the original are back for another anthology that is exactly what a third V/H/S should have been, and much like that first movie, Southbound is weird, scary, inconsistent and immensely entertaining from beginning to end.
Southbound tells five interwoven tales, all following a group of characters as they travel down a desolate highway, but each will soon discover the dangers that lurk in the middle of nowhere. Unlike V/H/S, there is no complicated frame narrative that connects these stories or requires a long-winded setup. Instead, the transitions are seamless, and people from one segment will frequently pop up in the next in a way that is natural and not distracting. Unlike some anthologies like the ABCs of Death series, Southbound feels like a single film rather than a bunch of shorts hastily assembled. In that way, it’s similar to the pinnacle of all horror anthologies, Trick ‘r Treat, and that’s good company to be in.
Just as each V/H/S story made audiences feel they were watching something completely genuine that they shouldn’t be seeing, each Southbound tale effectively gets across the hopelessness of this fictional universe. Our leads, facing profound danger, are completely alone for miles and miles in every direction, and that sense of isolation is undeniably contagious. All of the segments play with that in their own way, as well as the concept that these characters are being given a chance for redemption. The movie gods put the protagonists in extreme circumstances, push them to the edge and give them a clear choice to make. In other words, it’s a Twilight Zone style morality tale for a new generation.
Although the V/H/S series establishes a grounded universe depicted through “real” footage, Southbound is outlandish right from the beginning, with supernatural creatures playing a major part in the narrative no more than 10 minutes in. And yet it’s never as silly as the magic cape sequence in V/H/S Viral, for example. The Grim Reaper monsters in Southbound do not verge into the realm of a SyFy original movie, mainly because they’re taken just up to the edge of ridiculousness without crossing over into camp. It’s too bad the special effects work is not quite up to snuff, but considering the budget was just over $20,000, that is to be expected.
It wouldn’t be a horror anthology without one weak segment, and this film’s second to last story sticks out like a sore thumb and brings the film to a grinding halt. Much of the picture is enigmatic; Our filmmakers don’t explain where we are, the nature of the monsters, much of the characters’ backstories, and other key details. Yet for most of the ride, that’s not an issue because we’re given enough information to become emotionally invested and to be weirded out by the mystery of it all. By the time we get to the fourth segment, “Jailbreak,” we know so little about what’s happening that it’s difficult to care about any of it. We spend the entire length of the story trying to figure out what’s going on rather than having any sort of emotional reaction; as Patrick Horvath continues hitting us with one bizarre visual after another, by the time we might start putting things together, it’s over. Southbound comes so close to perfectly keeping us in the dark in a way that is more intriguing than frustrating, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
The film is also not quite as innovative as the first V/H/S, which brought so many new tricks to the table. Southbound is chock full of horror anthology tropes, starting right away with the radio D.J. that connects all the stories and spells out the movie’s theme very explicitly. Between Southbound, A Christmas Horror Story and Tales of Halloween, we’ve seen that used three times in the past four months alone. And for how creative the first four segments are, the final one turns into pretty standard home invasion scare-fare, which is a slightly disappointing note to end the movie on.
All in all, though, Southbound is absolutely one of the best horror anthologies we’ve seen since the first V/H/S. Though the segments themselves can be all over the place, what’s really absorbing is the world being developed and the number of questions the audience is left with by the end. It’s a movie that will warrant plenty of discussion, theories and rewatches in order to piece everything together, and best of all, we are left feeling eager to do so. The greatest horror anthologies are a series of shorts being told in service of a larger story, while the weaker ones are more like a night at the short film festival. Southbound certainly falls into the former category, and a sequel simply can’t come soon enough. Let’s just hope they don’t pull another V/H/S Viral.