If I had to guess, I’d say a good portion of you out there have had a “crazy ex”. I know I have. At least, we all tell ourselves. But what if they actually were? I would hope that none of them ever tried to actually kill you. We spend so much time loving and trying to screw the person that we’re with, that a lot of us become blind to them. Their actions. The things they say. The way they look at us. We become so blind that we often forget to ask the most important question, posed in the film What Keeps You Alive, which is, do you really know the person you love at all?...
…Written/directed by Colin Minihan (It Stains the Sand Red), What Keeps You Alive tells a tragic love story between Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson). The two women have just arrived at Jackie’s cabin in the mountains. Recently married and in love, they’ve come to get away from the city and just enjoy each other. But when Jules runs into Jackie’s childhood friend, Sarah (Martha MacIsaac) and learns that Jackie isn’t even, er, “Jackie’s” real name, Jules is set on a downward spiral of discovery as she begins to uncover the deadly reason why Jackie has really brought her into the mountains.
This may sound odd to say, but as someone who has been a horror fan for a long, long time, I’m fucking thrilled at the fact that we’re seeing more films like What Keeps You Alive, which are throwing away old norms and replacing them with the modern day normal. No, What Keeps You Alive is not the first time we’ve seen a horror film depicting a female romance, but unlike films of the past which honed in on the sexual aspect of female lovers like Vampyros Lesbos, What Keeps You Alive treats Jules and Jackie like they should be, which is just another, every day couple. I love gratuitous nudity and sex just as much as the next person, but characters, like people, should not be defined by their sexuality, so it’s refreshing to see Minihan not go that route. It also helps to make both characters seem genuine and truly in love…at least at first.
Allen delivers a deeply emotional, sad performance as Jules, a woman realizing everything she ever thought she knew and loved about her partner isn’t real. Her anguish and shock is gut wrenching, which allows her terror to be our terror. But fear can only go so far without a great villain, and luckily, Anderson is superb as the psychotic Jackie. Superb doesn’t even begin to describe her though. Anderson is outright mesmerizing, a dangerous force of nature who drips venom with every word and gaze. Anderson is like a snake shedding her human skin, slithering through the film with a cold viciousness that is remarkable to watch. It’s one thing for Jules to discover the truth behind Jackie’s secrets, but it’s another to watch her slip in and out of tears so easily to lure Jules into believing she has actual human emotions, in one scene going from painful sobs to straight faced calm so quickly that Jules has to actually mouth “what the fuck”. We as the audience do the same, and we do it frequently when it comes to Anderson’s delivery.
There isn’t a word of dialogue wasted in What Keeps You Alive. The film isn’t just about a marriage gone horribly wrong, but also an interesting study of what goes into the makeup of a truly deranged human being. Jackie gives us hints now and then, with lines like “It’s nature, not nurture”, implying that she is this way naturally, but the audience is never fully given a “reason”. It’s up to us to analyze, and Minihan gives us an intelligent space packed with thrills to do it in. Between the extensive use of classical music and beautiful cinematography by David Schuurman, What Keeps You Alive is a treat for the senses. Schuurman’s work is truly inspired, ranging from an absolutely gorgeous yet macabre scene of Jackie cleaning up a murder scene lit entirely by a black light, to extreme close-ups of the characters that force us out of our comfort zones and into the shoes of their terror.
What Keeps You Alive also moves surprisingly well. Remote horror films with such a small cast of characters focused on human drama can sometimes come off a bit slow (though rewarding), but that isn’t the case here. Once the film takes a sudden turn from sweet romance to high-octane horror, it will leave you like a deer stuck in headlights. I was utterly captivated by What Keeps You Alive. It’s a pulse-pounding showdown as Jackie and Jules are forced into a hunter and prey scenario. Even before the action takes off, the film is tense, but once we leap off the mountain side and into the darkness of Jackie’s sick games, What Keeps You Alive goes from tense to a rusted bear trap squeezer tighter and tighter on your leg. You’ll find yourself wondering again and again how Jules is going to overcome a hunter as deadly as Jackie, and each time, the answer will surprise you, for better or worse.
What starts off as an invigorating survival horror story though regrettably becomes a bit repetitive a little over halfway through. The problem is, What Keeps You Alive can, at times, feel a little like musical handcuffs. Jackie and Jules flip flop having the upper hand so often that it can be exhausting, especially because Jackie has a very specific plan for Jules, which forces the film to become predictable in moments since we as the audience know that Jackie cannot finish the job until certain requirements have been met. The performances and Minihan’s talent for creating tension thankfully carry the film through this last half, but when Jules has escaped and been captured for what feels like the fifth time, it’s fair to wonder how many more times we’re going to see this before Jackie and Jules can have the final confrontation we’ve all been waiting for.
That confrontation isn’t quite what you’d expect for a film like What Keeps You Alive, but is ultimately satisfying in a philosophical sort of way that takes time to digest. There are plenty of shocks and screams to be found in What Keeps You Alive, plus a nasty killing or two, but Minihan’s film is more than your run of the mill horror thriller. There is real depth to these characters, and a theme that you’ll be thinking about next time you lay down next to your significant other, family member, or friend. How well do you really know that person, and are they the loving person you think they are, or an honest to God monster?
What Keeps You Alive is now on VOD.
By Matt Konopka