Two low-rent criminals, covered in blood and frantic with regret, speed down a purgatorial stretch of desert highway. The gravel-voiced DJ on the radio dedicates the next song directly to them: “This one is for all you lost souls racing down to redemption, and all you sinners running from your past by heading straight into that pit of darkness up ahead.” Here’s hoping the fugitives enjoy the tune, because their demons (represented here by floating skeleton monsters) are about to catch up with them.
Welcome to Southbound, a gnarly anthology from some of the same twisted minds who brought you the V/H/S trilogy. But where the segments in those films were linked by a flimsy framing device and a shared nostalgia for Eighties horror kitsch, this new omnibus is unified by unflinchingly focusing on a single theme: guilt. Each of the movie’s four interconnected shorts is directed by a different lo-fi horror filmmaker; each of their heroes is haunted by their transgressions and desperate for a way to make things right.
In Roxanne Benjamin’s fun and unnerving “Siren,” a rock trio hitches a ride from some Leave it to Beaver-looking Satanists who force the band’s lead singer to reckon with her role in a tragedy. Her story bleeds directly into David Bruckner’s “The Accident,” a brilliantly sick detour that follows a distracted motorist (Mather Zickel) as he plows into a pedestrian — and then tries to sow her body back together at an abandoned hospital. Like episodes of The Twilight Zone that a baked Rod Serling might have written after watching Carnival of Souls, these chapters are eerie to the extreme, and seedy enough to make you feel like you’re watching something you were never meant to see.
Of course, every omnibus has its ups and downs: Patrick Horvath’s “Jailbreak” introduces a bedraggled road warrior as he searches for his long-lost sister, but some egregiously undercooked supernatural elements keep his story stuck in neutral. Fortunately, V/H/S alumni Radio Silence almost get things back up to speed with a wraparound piece that curls the movie into an unholy Möbius strip — it builds to a clever anticlimax that ditches us in the same tortured limbo that the film’s characters have been trying to escape.
Despite its occasional slack, Southbound is still tightly knotted where so many other films of its type are frayed at the seams. It gets under your skin because it knows there’s nothing scarier than realizing that — no matter how far you drive — the evil in your rearview mirror is always closer than it appears.