Just five minutes into this movie, I was digging the creepy “Twilight Zone” vibe and I was hoping the rest of the journey would continue down the same mind-bending, chilling path.
I was not disappointed.
“Southbound” is a five-segment horror anthology from the directors of “V/H/S,” with each chapter set on or near a forsaken stretch of American Southwest highway that seems to cut right through Purgatory. It’s one of the smartest and scariest movies in recent memory.
We get some genuinely shocking and disgusting gross-out moments; clever and disturbing use of sound effects; multiple wicked plot delights; cool, drive-in-theater visuals, and some nifty overlapping plot elements.
A radio host (Larry Fessenden) provides the voice-over narrative linking the five stories. “Regret and remorse, amends and atonement, that’s life, right? Well, this next one is for you. All you lost souls racing down that long road to redemption,” says the disembodied voice near the outset of the tale.
We begin with “The Way Out,” with two blood-spattered men (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Chad Villella), who may or may not be criminals, in a pickup truck and arriving at a gas station/diner in the middle of nowhere — and then finding themselves on a continuous loop, arriving at the same joint over and over again, until they’re confronted by an inexplicable, insane threat.
Next up is “Siren,” featuring a trio of young female rockers (Hannah Marks, Nathalie Love, Fabianne Therese), who until recently were a quartet, in a lime-green VW bus sidelined by a tire blowout on the same stretch of highway we just saw in “The Way Out.”
When a seemingly well-intentioned couple stops to help out, the girls clearly haven’t done their horror-movie homework — because after initially refusing to jump in the car, they accept the “kindness” of these strangers. Next thing you know, it’s time for a spooky dinner scene featuring obligatory Super Scary Twins (who are older than the usual Super Scary Twins we see in horror films), and THEN …
Well. You’ll see.
The third and most skilled entry in the anthology is “Accident,” directed by David Bruckner.
A man named Lucas (Mather Zickel) is driving a Volvo and zipping down the highway, on the phone with his girlfriend, who is sending him photos of herself in various outfits.
He looks up — but not in time to avoid hitting a young woman squarely in his path.
In a standard-issue horror movie, Lucas would get out of the car, see how seriously the woman is injured and race back to his car and leave her to die. Lucas, however, actually calls 911 and stays on the scene — but when he describes the victim’s injuries to a dispatcher (who puts an EMT on the line as well), he’s told the only way to save her is to drive her to the nearest hospital.
Only one problem: There’s no one at the hospital. Not a single soul. The women on the phone tell the man it’s up to him to perform life-saving surgery. They’ll guide him through it.
What follows is brutal, gory, wickedly funny, demented — and worthy of Stephen King’s darkest nightmares.
Next up is “Jailbreak,” a nasty little gem with David Yow as Danny, hell-bent on rescuing his sister (Tipper Newton), who has been missing for a decade — and might not consider herself in need of being saved. It’s maybe the least effective of the five entries, but that means it’s more of a three-star short than something exceptional. Even the “weakest” link in this chain is a cut above most horror fare.
We close with “The Way In,” and by that title we know it’s a bookend of sorts to that opening chapter, “The Way Out.” As a couple prepares to send their daughter off to college on a quiet night, a gang of masked intruders surround the house and close in — and let the chills begin. Of all the masked intruders in all the movies featuring masked intruders, these masked intruders are as terrifying as they come.
But just when we think we’ve got it all figured out, “Southbound” serves up another deliciously bloody twist.
The Orchard presents a film directed by Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath and Radio Silence and written by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Benjamin, Susan Burke, Bruckner, Horvath and Dallas Hallam. Running time: 89 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and Tuesday on demand.