In his second review of our underreported horror movies series, Steven Allison picks apart the classic yet unbelievable plot of What Keeps You Alive
Like an aged Gouda that works perfectly with a rustic Sangiovese, Colin Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive makes for an excellent pairing with Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge – the previous instalment in my month of Halloween horror reviews. Enjoy each individually or gorge on them back-to-back for the ultimate experience in female revenge.
What Keeps You Alive, a lesbian take on that black widow thriller trope, follows the story of Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen), a newlywed couple on a weekend break in Canada. The film sets itself up well in its first third, luring us into a false sense of security as we wait patiently for the anticipated turn in events. Mostly enjoyable at first, it begins to stretch the boundaries of believability, offensively so in parts.
At a remote lakeside cabin which belongs to Jackie’s great grandfather, the couple are totally absorbed by each other and their majestic surroundings. As expected, their tranquility is soon shaken when they’re hauled into a terrifying ordeal. ‘Oh hang on,’ I hear you say with eye-rolling despondency, ‘Been there, done that.’ Yes, we all have, but trust me – there’s more to this horror-thriller than meets the eye. Read on, but be warned – necessary spoilers lay ahead.
As with many cabin-in-the-woods type flicks, Jackie and Jules’ idyll is disrupted by the ominous night-time arrival of a stranger. With Minihan hoodwinking the audience, the stranger turns out to be Jackie’s childhood friend Sarah (Martha MacIsaac). Drawn from her home across the lake by the lights of the usually uninhabited cabin, Sarah inadvertently discloses Jackie’s true identity as Megan during an uncomfortable exchange.
The following day, Jackie confesses to a furious Jules that she changed her name years before in the midst of an identity crisis. All is eventually forgiven and peace is restored. Jules later secretly rows across to Sarah’s home, where she discovers that Jackie was once questioned by the police about the drowning of her friend Jenny. During a stroll through the woods, Jackie explains that she was cleared of any involvement in Jenny’s death, a claim that Jules seems to believe.
But, 25 minutes into the film, we’re stunned by a radical twist when Jackie aggressively shoves Jules from a clifftop.
When Jackie arrives at an empty, bloodstained patch of grass, we realise that Jules has implausibly survived the fall. The second third of What Keeps You Alive quickly transforms into a hunter-stalking-prey nightmare for Jules. As she cowers in the undergrowth, she refuses to be coaxed from her hiding place by Jackie’s crocodile tears and spurious claims of repentance.
When she makes the foolish decision to return to the cabin to patch herself up – an almost impossible scene to watch – this is where the film starts to fall off its own cliff. From then on, the cat-and-mouse, hunter-becomes-hunted – and vice-versa – story is driven by a series of poor choices. The first of those embroils Sarah and her husband Daniel (Joey Klein) in the tussle, ultimately leading to their brutal end. Their later dismemberment in a plastic wrapped room and disposal in the lake are so Dexter I’m in zero doubt as to whether Minihan has seen the series.
In its final third, What Keeps You Alive falls deeper over the edge, rescued by some half decent twists. Both Jackie and Jules have the chance to kill each other over and over – of course, they don’t. Frustrating, but the rest of the film wouldn’t be possible otherwise. At this point, it becomes clear that strong – and physically challenging – performances will carry this horror-thriller to its end. The pair attempt to outwit each other in an absurd series of events, during which we learn that the film’s title refers to hunting advice from Jackie’s father – “Only kill what can keep you alive.” Her literal interpretation of this instruction is just one aspect of the hunting thread cleverly woven through the film’s tapestry – one of Minihan’s more successful accomplishments here.
In keeping with most of what preceded, What Keeps You Alive ends on an implausible note, and it’s your guess as to who emerges as the victor.