Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review was originally posted after the film’s world premiere at the 2018 SXSW Interactive Festival. It has been updated for the film’s release.
It’s often better to go into films completely blind, without watching trailers, reading lead-up features, or engaging in the internet’s seemingly bottomless appetite for baseless speculation. Letting a movie exist on its own terms, rather than the terms anticipation and spoilers have set up for it, is usually the best way to experience it. But the one exception to the rule may be horror movies, given that the genre runs such a wide and unpredictable gamut. People who are game for a tense, socially provocative horror-thriller like Get Out aren’t necessarily on board for gross-out fests like The Human Centipede, and while part of the tension of any horror movie is not knowing just how violent the story is going to get, one viewer’s quality extreme cinema is another’s overwhelming nightmare fuel.
And with films like What Keeps You Alive, knowing from frame one that it’s a horror story gives it a welcome sense of anticipation and tension. Writer-director Colin Minihan (It Stains the Sands Red, Grave Encounters) opens with a gentle sequence that wouldn’t be out of place in an indie LBGTQ relationship drama. As two of his characters settle into a remote cabin in the woods, he deliberately plays up horror-movie expectations by scattering visible weapons around the house (a gun above a mantel, a noose hanging on a wall), building the flow of scenes and then sharply interrupting them, and goosing the audience with ominous music cues. There are enough red herrings involved in the setup to build up a queasy tension, which makes it even more shocking when the actual mayhem comes from an unexpected direction.
What’s the genre?
Suspense-horror. There’s a fair bit of blood involved, but this isn’t an ultra-gory splatter movie, so much as a form of a cat-and-mouse slasher movie.
What’s it about?
On the first anniversary of their wedding, gay couple Jackie and Jules (Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen, both from 2017’s Saw franchise installment Jigsaw) head to Jackie’s family cabin. It’s a huge, rambling, secluded old home, the kind of building made for eventual chase sequences and lethal hide-and-seek games with stalkers. Shortly after they arrive, Jackie’s childhood friend Sarah (Martha MacIsaac) swings by, and Jules immediately notices the weird tension between Sarah and Jackie, who Sarah calls “Megan.” Later, Jules meets Sarah’s friendly but unnervingly distant husband Daniel (Joey Klein), and he and Sarah drop some dark hints about something that happened between Sarah and Megan years ago. After that: murder, attempted murder, attempted survival, and a lot of running.
What’s it really about?
It’s mostly about tension. If there’s a message, it might come when Jules gives a melancholy little speech about how it’s impossible to ever really know what’s going on in another person’s head. Or when Megan / Jackie tells a grim childhood story about a lesson her father taught her, about never hunting for sport, only for survival — only killing “what keeps you alive.” But the film never feels like it’s built around a concept, so much as around emotions: fear, anger, helplessness, and eventually, raw determination.
Is it good?
There are some significant problems with the characters. As the backstory emerges, it raises a lot of significant unanswered questions about plausibility and the antagonist’s reasoning. And as the story narrows to its fundamental antagonist / protagonist face-off, the protagonist keeps making baffling choices. They aren’t major exasperating ones, of the “Why are you splitting away from the group, leaving your safe hiding place, and heading into the dark basement alone?” variety. But as the protagonist keeps failing to take advantage of openings for escape, and other people pay the price, it becomes harder to sympathize.
As the stakes rise, there’s a certain realism to that kind of paralysis — most of us wouldn’t do better if we were stuck in this situation — but it’s still not satisfying on-screen, and it slows the story down to a crawl. Contrasted with something like 10 Cloverfield Lane, where the lead is resourceful, active, and still blocked at every turn, What Keeps You Alive can feel like it’s turning in circles in the middle going.
But the film makes a strong argument for the value of artistry in horror. Stark colors and an active camera, chasing or leading the characters, give the whole film a sense of intensity and dynamism. Minihan captures some tremendously beautiful images throughout the movie, like the early overhead shot of Jackie and Jules in a vividly white little canoe on a stark black lake. A swoony scene where Jackie sings to Jules by firelight — an eerie but compelling little ditty about inner demons released by blood — is neatly positioned between foreshadowing and foreplay. And midway through the film, Minihan slows down the action for a gorgeous black-light sequence that involves piano-playing and a teasingly slow, deliberate cleanup process after a death. Never mind that blood doesn’t actually luminesce under black light; the phosphorescent glow is haunting, and the process of surfaces being gradually wiped clean, erasing all evidence of what just happened, is unsettling.
Anderson and Allen are both compelling screen presences, with chemistry that slides between warm and natural, and downright electric. They make a charming couple, which becomes important as the story unwinds. They both have challenging roles to play here, with a lot of emotion to bring across, and the story wouldn’t work without their complete commitment to the physicality of what they’re doing, and the fears they have to play out on-screen.
At one of the SXSW premiere screenings, Minihan said he originally cast a man in Anderson’s role, but lost him a month before shooting, when the actor signed a yearlong TV deal. The script doesn’t appear to have been particularly tweaked because of that casting change, and it’s stronger for not making an express point of its characters’ gender. And as so often happens when a woman takes a role written for a man, that role ends up feeling unusually muscular, bold, and nuanced for a female character.
Still, it’s hard to see this content working as well with a straight couple, given the power dynamics at work; changing Jackie’s gender changes a lot about the story, and prevents the film from feeling like a retread of something like Coralie Fargeat’s recent grindhouse movie Revenge. Plot twists and surprises aside, this is in many ways a pretty standard slasher-in-the-woods story, and it can use every unique signifier it can get, from the central couple to the memorable performances to the moody musical interludes. It’s a movie about action and blood, but the artistry makes the difference.
What should it be rated?
R, for some brief female toplessness, bloody violence, and a whole lot of desperate, miserable life-or-death tension.
How can I actually watch it?
What Keeps You Alive is out in limited theatrical release and on VOD platforms on August 24th.