What with the inferior “V/H/S Viral” having possibly run that hitherto enjoyable franchise aground, some “V/H/S” alumni plus a few newcomers try a different direction with “Southbound.” This entertaining-enough quartet of loosely interwoven terror tales falls right into the middle ground of horror omnibuses, with no outright duds but no truly memorable (or scary) segments either. Pic opens Feb. 5 in New York and Los Angeles, with another 30 or so theatrical rollouts currently booked after its VOD launch on Feb. 9; it should do well with genre fans in various formats.
The primary link among these suspense stories is that they all happen on or near a desolate stretch of desert road. (There’s also a minor connective thread in the audio-only form of Larry Fessenden channeling Wolfman Jack as a regional broadcast DJ.) In the Radio Silence troupe’s wraparound, “The Way Out/The Way In,” two bloodied men (Matt Bettinell-Olpin and Chad Villella) pull into a truck stop where things seem a little off. We’ll find out later what perils they’ve already survived—right now, they’re contending with the malevolent spirits (f/x by Justin Martinez) that have pursued them here.
In “Siren,” producer-writer Roxanne Benjamin’s first directorial effort, three young female musicians (Fabianne Therese, Nathalie Love, Hannah Marks) are continuing to tour after the fourth band member’s death. When their van suffers a flat in the middle of nowhere, they accept the hospitality of some weird passersby who seem to live in a 1950s time warp. Of course, that anachronistic manner turns out to be far from the worst thing about them.
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A survivor from that episode flees back out onto the road, only to fall prey to “The Accident” caused by driver Lucas (Mather Zickel), who’s staring at his phone at just the wrong moment on an otherwise deserted throughway. Dogged (like everyone in these episodes) by GPS failure, he takes the still-breathing victim to a nearby hamlet, where even the local medical emergency center seems deserted. In David Bruckner’s segment, the 911 personnel our protagonist manages to get on the phone are a mite too eager to talk him through addressing this medical crisis all by himself.
Her job done, one of those phone voices marches into a saloon, which is promptly invaded by a gun-wielding man (David Yow) demanding information on the vanished sister last seen there years ago. In Patrick Horvath’s “Jailbreak,” he’s duly directed by the patrons to a sort of bunker, where he does indeed reunite with sis (Tipper Newton). Unfortunately, he soon learns she never wanted or needed to be rescued, and that tracking her down might have been a grave error.
Finally, middle-class parents (Gerald Downey, Kate Beahan) spending one last weekend with their daughter (Hassie Harrison) before she starts college find themselves home-invaded by masked men. Their commingled fates lead the pic back to where it began.
Going for more of a “Twilight Zone” feel than the gonzo tenor of the “V/H/S” films, the film suffers from a certain dearth of explanation as to the precise “why” of what’s going on in each story, which isn’t bothersome in the moment but contributes to a certain lack of cumulative payoff. The ways in which the sections overlap is sometimes clever, yet don’t appear to point toward any unifying narrative keys or meaning. In the end, the only significant takeaway is: Yeah, bad things happen on lonely desert roads. We know, because horror movies have told us so many times already.
Though there’s some tonal variation (“Siren” strikes the most humorously macabre attitude, while other panels are played relatively straight), in terms of packaging “Southbound” aims more for consistency than for variety, despite its different creative teams. There’s a grungy nocturnal atmosphere to the widescreen cinematography by different lensers throughout; a synthy overall score by duo the Gifted (James Bairian, Louis Castle) provides additional glue. Performances are solid, tech/design contributions modest but resourceful.
The Way Out/The Way In
Produced by Matt Bettinell-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, Justin Martinez Chad Villella. Directed by Radio Silence. Screenplay, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin. Camera (color, HD), Gillett; editors, Bettinell-Olpin, Gillett.
Cast: Chad Villella, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Kristina Pesic, Kate Beahan, Gerald Downey, Hassie Harrison.
Produced by Chris Harding, Roxanne Benjamin. Directed by Roxanne Benjamin. Screenplay, Benjamin, Susan Burke. Camera (color, HD), Tarin Anderson; editor, Jason Eisener.
Cast: Fabianne Therese, Nathalie Love, Hannah Marks, Dana Gould, Susan Burke, Davey Johnson, Anessa Ramsey.
Produced, directed, written, edited by David Bruckner. Camera (color, HD), Andrew Shulkind.
Cast: Mather Zickel, Fabianne Therese, Karla Droege, Roxanne Benjamin, Zoe Cooper, Justin Welborn.
Produced, directed, edited by Patrick Horvath. Screenplay, Horvath, Dallas Hallam. Camera (color, HD), Alexandre Naufel.
Cast: David Yow, Tipper Newton, Matt Peters, Maria Olsen, Tyler Tuione.