★★★★ out of ★★★★★ A landmark LGBT horror/thriller film, wherein the relationship is both necessary and coincidental to the story.
Directed by Colin Minehan
What Keeps You Alive is certainly reflecting the sign of the times. Ten years ago, this movie would have been somewhat controversial, in that the movie is about two women, Julia (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) who are celebrating their one month wedding anniversary by going to Jackie’s legacy cabin in the woods. Sure, there have been lesbian themed horror films before, but they were salacious things. Scandalous. Daughters of Darkness. Vampyros Lesbos. The Hunger. The notion of a lesbian themed horror film was to titillate and up the sexy ante. In What Keeps You Alive, it just happens to be the state of the relationship.
Yes, there are romantic scenes in it, but it no longer seems particularly different than a hetero romantic scene. It just is. And maybe it’s my perspective, but it’s telling that the movie does not try and hyperbolize the situation. This film normalizes the relationship. Nothing really taboo here. However, it does bear something important: these two women are roughly equivalent physically and intellectually, (if not emotionally.)
Why is that important? Well, Jackie has some very dark secrets in her past, and they start to come out on this sojourn. A brief encounter with Sarah, an old neighbor and childhood friend of Jackie, who still lives across the lake where their cabin is, recalled some old times… but Sarah remembered Jackie as a girl named Meghan, and this part of Jackie’s past was never discussed between the couple. Curious. Gradually more uncomfortable stories percolate to the surface, and in a random surprise attack, Jackie shoves Jules over a cliff, dropping her some forty feet below. Yes, Jackie is a psychopath, with a murderous past that Jules was completely unaware of.
Jules survived the fall. She’s in rough shape, but she’ll make it. Jackie eventually realizes that Jules didn’t die, and Jackie coldly stalks Jules through the forest with a rifle and a hunting knife, and the pursuit is afoot, leading to a second and third act full of tense cat-and-mouse action. Jules, though injured badly from the fall, is not overmatched strength wise by Jackie. The tale of the tape would probably give Jules the advantage, but where Jackie has the upper hand is that she is a stone cold, calm killer, and Jules is broken and emotionally not ready for this.
The story needs the two leads to be compelling and well drawn, and they are. You buy the relationship between the two right from the get. They have a natural ease about them of a couple who are completely comfortable with each other. And when the relationship breaks, the acting also shows up. Brittany Allen, in a complete change in look and character from her previous outings has gone rather butch, with loose fit clothing, and a bit of a stooped shoulder countenance. It is very much in contrast to her ditzy glam girl role in the movie she did with her husband/director Minehan in It Stains the Sands Red(which is another fantastic one-on-one horror movie).
Anderson does a great job playing the manipulator. When she’s hunting, she tries to lure out Jules with emotional apologetic pleas, then stopping cold, and looking around, clearly NOT emotionally invested in the relationship. It’s a terrific acting trick, and very convincing. She is both elegant and powerful; feline feral in body language. Jules, on the other hand, is a hot mess. She’s busted up physically, and a wreck emotionally.
There are a couple of things that prevent the movie from ascending to the upper echelon of indie horror. The background of Jackie/Meghan is hard to sort out. There is some back story about her life growing up, but you really don’t know what’s making Jackie tick, or why she went so bad. She offers up “It’s nature, not nurture.” Which is a nice metaphor for LGBT analysis. But, it’s not really well constructed. Also, I think the ending feels like a conglomeration of a lot of ideas. The ultimate conclusion is quite satisfying, but there were some odd decisions and curious plot point that were a little clunky leading up to the finale.
Minehan, as he proved in It Stains the Sands Red, has a landscape painter’s eye for cinematography. In particular, his shots on the lake are gorgeous. The shots in the woods are crystalline looking, and though isolating, the woods in this case are more protective than threatening. In addition to playing the lead, Allen also contributes the song for this movie, “There’s a Demon Inside” which is a catchy melancholy folk tune. This, my friends, is the best way to have a husband and wife duo making independent horror films together. (Unlike, say Paul W.S. Anderson and Milla Jovovich.)
It is a compelling and original thriller, and very much in line with IFC Midnight’s indie stable of productions. An argument could be made that this is less horror, more thriller, but there are definitely has moments that make you squirm. And, it has been marketed as a horror film and was a regular on the horror film circuit this past year. Comparable films would be Misery, Beast, High Tension, and Gone Girl. Wait. Gone Girl. I’ve made fun of Gone Girl as a thriller not a horror film. Hmmmm…
What Keeps You Alive is Rated R for intense violent scenes, and is available for rent streaming on Amazon Prime.