Anthology films are nothing new to horror cinema. The story collection format has been a hallmark of the genre, going all the way back to Paul Leni’s 1924 silent film, Waxworks. Leni’s film helped set the template for what viewers have come to expect from the horror anthology: a framing device helps set up the various stories that will be related over the course of the film, and then the mini-movies play out, returning to the interlinking tale in between each instalment. The omnibus usually wraps up with some sort of ironic twist ending, à la The Twilight Zone, before the credits roll.
It’s an effective setup, judging by the innumerable films that utilise the format: Tales from the Crypt and many other Amicus releases in the 1970s, Deadtime Stories and Creepshow in the 1980s, Grim Prairie Tales and Tales from the Hood in the 1990s, and all the way up through recent collections like Chillerama and the V/H/S series have all taken the anthology and made decent money and fandom from the format.
However, despite the success of these films with fans, there’s always something somewhat lacking in horror portmanteaus. Despite a robust frame tale, the real lack of through-line from one instalment to the next lends most collections feeling like compilations, rather than a proper movie. It was the rare feature such as 1985’s Cat’s Eye that managed to connect all the pieces in a robustly satisfying way. For the most part, anthologies have all had more in common with a dog-eared issue of Creepy than anything that might approach actual cinematic storytelling.
Lately, however, it seems that enterprising producers and directors are taking the anthology and making it into something more than just a collection, but rather a series of interconnected tales exploring a shared universe and characters. Michael Dougherty’s 2007 film, Trick ‘r Treat, took the concept of several tales all happening on the same night and became a movie that is definitely more than just a bunch of stories. Characters from one section pop up in the background of another, the story related in one instalment is shown in full later on, and the whole thing comes full circle by the end. It’s a brilliant concept, and was the high water mark for modern anthologies for the better part of a decade - that is, until the 2015 release of Southbound.
Southbound takes the idea of a shared cinematic universe for its short films and ups the ante in a big way. Premiering at the 2015 Toronto International Film Fest as part of the festival’s Midnight Madness lineup, Southbound immediately demonstrated that it was more than just another anthology. Toronto Film Scene writer Andrew Parker kicked off his review by stating that, “While anthology horror is back in vogue, the uniquely solid Southbound blows all other examples out of the water quite handily.”
It was a statement echoed by Perri Nemiroff at Collider, who went on to point out, in terms of anthology films, Southbound was “more even and has more connective tissue than most”, which really does a fine job of sorting out Southbound’s most enduring feature, which is that every story in the film is connected in some tangible way to the ones both preceding and succeeding it.
Starring everyone from musician David Yow of Jesus Lizard to stand-up comic Dana Gould, along with a slew of people whose faces you’re sure to recognise, Southbound hits a lot of genre sweet spots, while still offering up something new and exciting. The resulting film is one that bobs and weaves, interpolating strange creatures from beyond, wreaking vengeance on those who have done wrong, along with mystic symbolism, omniscient voices from beyond, and - obviously - ritual sacrifice.
There’s a lot of blood - an awful lot, really - but there’s a surprising amount of black humour to be found in every section. Even as Mather Zickel’s character, Lucas, is carrying the battered body of the young woman he nearly obliterated with his car, the viewer will find themselves giggling as things begin to fall apart (literally) in his hands. That levity keeps the film tied to its evolution from those previous V/H/S anthologies, all of which had at least one instalment which played in the realm of comedy for a minute or two, such as the bonkers final segment of V/H/S/2, Slumber Party Alien Abduction.
One of the film’s producer, Brad Miska - who also helped bring the V/H/S films to the screen - explained that the concept behind Southbound was that everyone involved wanted to make a film that was fresh and exciting and that while Trick ‘r Treat was definitely a movie they enjoyed, that wasn’t the primary inspiration.
“If anything, it was sort of a response to the V/H/S rip-offs and other anthologies that were coming out that felt lazy,” Miska told us. “We wanted to try and further the anthology and do something that felt different, even though Trick ‘r Treat will always be the gold standard.”
Southbound is certainly anything but lazy, and even goes one further than Trick ‘r Treat. Whereas that film features narratives that interweave, Southbound’s stories also lead from one to the other in a sequential fashion that’s not only direct but cyclical. All of the characters in this dusty desert universe pass by one another, if not interacting directly. It’s a complicated skein from which to pull, but it really succeeds in making Southbound a film that bears up under multiple viewings.
On a basic level, the interconnectedness begins when Mitch (Chad Villella), from opening tale The Way Out, enters a hotel where the band The White Tights are staying in the next instalment, Siren. At the end of Siren, The White Tights’ Sadie (Fabianne Therese) runs into the road to be hit by the protagonist of The Accident, who is on the phone with Sandy (Maria Olsen), who leaves the door open in The Trap, allowing Danny (Yow) to enter in. Finally, it’s Danny’s sister who attracts the notice of Jem (Hassie Harrison) in The Way In, who is killed by Mitch from The Way Out.
The original idea for Southbound came from the fact that Miska had a concept for a new kind of anthology and started talking with writer Matt Bettinelli-Olpin back and forth a bit, as well as some communication with directing team Radio Silence, with whom Miska had worked on the V/H/S segment, 10/31/98.
“[Radio Silence] came back and put their own spin on my nugget of an idea, and really wanted it to feel seamless,” Miska says. “It was the seed of a direction but enough to start discussing at lengths. I immediately called Roxanne Benjamin - one of my favorite people, who produced V/H/S and V/H/S/2 with me - and asked if she’d do this project with me. She asked, ‘Can I direct one?’"
Miska had no hesitation in her getting behind the camera because, he says, she’s incredibly talented, and Miska knew “she would kick ass” - which she does, knocking it out of the park with the film’s strongest segment, Siren, about a garage rock trio encountering a strange family after blowing a tire. Benjamin then rounded David Bruckner back up, and Miska was able to get MPI Media to back it based off a pitch. From there, Miska continues, they mixed in Patrick Horvath, who would do Jailbreak, arguably the film’s strangest segment. Miska had always wanted Horvath for V/H/S, so it was a bit of a coup. From there, the writers, directors, and producers started a sort of brain trust.
“Everyone would meet to discuss ideas and plans, and worked together to create the seamless atmosphere,” explains Miska. “The biggest win, I think, was the decision to shoot in the desert.”
The desert setting of Southbound is vast and uncompromising, and it is desolate, although sparsely populated. The film is almost monochromatic in how washed-out the harsh, unceasing sunshine makes everything, be it during daylight or nighttime. The heat’s almost palpable and lends a certain panicked urgency to every character and their situation. Along with the omnipresent radio DJ - voiced by genre icon Larry Fessenden - the desert is both the connective tissue of and character in the film.
The decision to make the segments all part of one overarching story came from Radio Silence, who wanted them to interweave and the producers decided on the desert setting.
“Once everyone started bringing in treatments we played around to see in what order they work,” Miska continues. “It’s dangerous because you’re committing to that lineup and there’s no reorganising it. Also, it was tough having to use the same crew for the entire shoot, although it was the best I’ve ever worked with. It was like the best summer camp ever.”
Also connecting the film is the way the brain trust worked together. When talking with Miska, the topic of coordinating five interweaving stories came up, especially given that the V/H/S films have a wraparound story, but the interior sections are mostly disconnected from one another, whereas Southbound’s segments tie into one another quite a bit. The producer described it as akin to making several films at once.
“As somebody who loves puzzles, making an anthology is a super frustrating and nearly impossible task that feels incredibly rewarding when assembled,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun figuring out how to put all the pieces together and make it work. You also get to work with several talented people at once and build relationships that last a lifetime.”
In terms of impact, Southbound made a big splash on the festival circuit, and then again on home video, as well as when Mondo released the film’s score by the Gifted on vinyl earlier this year. However, it keeps finding fans, especially now that it’s streaming. Being able to call the film up on Amazon Prime means that someone might just happen upon it, and end up pleasantly surprised - much like Miska’s relations.
“Personally, I love that was able to actually show my family. As proud of V/H/S as I am, it was embarrassing and weird showing that film to friends and family who don’t like horror,” Miska explains. “Southbound is safe enough for anyone, and we were really proud to make something that looked so gorgeous, which juxtaposes how ‘ugly’ the V/H/S films were.”
The producer explains that the look of Southbound was something they tried to do this with the V/H/S: Viral segment, Gorgeous Vortex by Todd Lincoln, but fans rejected it in a big way.
“Which bums me out,” Miska says because he thinks it’s stunning. “I loved how unapologetic we were with that franchise - but, hey, Southbound was for the V/H/S haters in some way, I guess.”
Given that film is circular and cyclical, and that the fan theories as to what the hidden meanings of the different segments allude, spawn a fascinating rabbit hole down which to escape, it almost seems like a given that Southbound would have some sort of follow-up in the works, in the way V/H/S has spawned both a franchise and a spin-off in SiREN. When asked if he foresees any expansion of the Southbound universe, however, Miska’s, unfortunately, a little uncertain.
“Possibly,” replies Miska. “We have some ideas, but everyone is super busy right now. Producer Chris Harding has been trying to rope everyone into a room, but I’m not sure it’ll ever come to fruition. It’s a bummer because I think we have an INSANE concept.”
That said, Miska will continue to work on Bloody Disgusting, the horror movie news and reviews site he co-founded in 2001, as well as working on new projects.
“I’m a masochist who likes playing with fire, so I’m doing an indie sci-fi film,” Miska concludes. “Indie and sci-fi are two words that when combined could combust.”
SOUTHBOUND débuts on Horror Channel on October 29th. Sky 319, Virgin 149, Freeview 70, Freesat 138.