What Keeps You Alive marks the third and, for my money, strongest collaboration to date for Canadian duo (and real-life couple) Colin Minahan and Brittany Allen. After breakout hit Extraterrestrial and last year’s brilliant zombie movie It Stains The Sands Red (which played Frightfest last year–read our review right here), it marks a new chapter for two of the most exciting voices in modern horror.
Allen has already had a big year with Sands, InControl (review here) and, of course, Jigsaw. Her co-star in that movie, Hannah Emily Anderson — the chick who was turned on by the titular killer in the trailer, and unsurprisingly turned out to be the best character in the movie — rejoins her here as Jackie, the more femme element of their lesbian couple. Allen is Jules; cropped-haired, eternally bra and make-up free, and utterly smitten.
What Keeps You Alive begins with the two heading off to Jackie’s country pile for a weekend of solitude. A terrifying song about a demon, that she sensually strums for Jules on an acoustic guitar, seems to suggest that something is afoot and indeed it is. As Jules soon realises, her loving wife is actually planning to murder her and pocket the life insurance money. Take that, hetero couples. Lesbians can be killers, too.
Minahan originally envisioned the psycho as male. Likewise, the script for Sands had Allen’s character as male (how was that awesome period joke going to work in that case?). The change might seem small, but it’s notable, not just because it makes the central pairing same-sex but because it gives a female actress the opportunity to play a role usually exclusively reserved for men (has there even been a significant female killer over the past few years, aside from Laurie Metcalf in Scream 2?)
Casting Anderson in the role also allows me to live out my Jigsaw fantasy, because her loopy fan-girl should absolutely have been the new Jigsaw in that flick.
There’s a touch of Marguerite Moreau to her here, while Allen bears more than a passing resemblance to Haute Tension‘s Marie — particularly when she’s drenched in blood, her eyes darting around the place wildly. They’re an instantly believable couple, their dynamic sweet, natural and never overplayed. Flashbacks to happier times fill out their backstory, but even without them it would be clear Jackie and Jules have something special.
The location (the film was shot in Ontario, Canada) is great, the pallette very green, evoking Green Room (review)-style nastiness happening between the thick trees. It’s easy to imagine the events of fellow Frightfest flick The Ranger happening just off-screen. What Keeps You Alive is easily Minahan’s most beautifully shot film yet while the score, also done by Allen, is powerful and evocative, particularly in the movie’s quieter moments.
The story doesn’t go at all where it seems it’s going to go, tripping us up at every turn. Minahan really puts his lady through the ringer here — though at least she’s not baking in the Las Vegas sun, like on Sands — but both she and Anderson are more than up to the considerable challenge. They’re the only two actors onscreen for most of the film’s running time, and they eat up every second.
Allen, already a chameleon of a character actress, is entirely committed, with hairy armpits on show and clad in loose clothes, in an utterly vanity-free performance. We know early on that she’s strong and fit, watching her go for a tough early-morning run, but Jules’s strength comes to the fore the more difficult the situation gets. Likewise, Jackie very calmly and meticulously ties her hair up and puts a hairband on before heading out to hunt her prey — she isn’t messing around either.
It’s little details like these that really showcase a woman’s involvement in bringing these characters to life. I’m a massive fan of the trope of women in horror, action, whatever it is, tying their hair up before getting down to business because real chicks don’t even work out before first scraping their hair back off their faces. The more fantastical elements of a story are easier to swallow when attention has been paid to making the characters feel like real people. It means a great deal.
The idea that you never really know who you’re sleeping next to is a terrifying one, exploited to maximum effect here, but What Keeps You Alive still plays as relatively realistic. Minahan doesn’t overplay his hand early on, dropping little hints about Jackie’s troubled past via a conspicuously present childhood friend (winningly played by Superbad‘s Martha MacIsaac).
The flick hurtles towards an explosive, unpredictable conclusion that’s equal parts satisfying and yet also a gut punch of brilliantly-executed unresolved tension as it remains unclear who will come out on top. Minahan and Allen have delivered a trio of great movies, each special and different in its own way, but What Keeps You Alive elevates their partnership to a whole other level.
On the strength of this movie alone, these two are a couple of the most exciting talents working in horror right now. Here’s to the next one, it cannot come quick enough.
WICKED RATING: (9 / 10)
Director(s): Colin Minahan
Writer(s): Colin Minahan
Stars: Brittany Allen, Hannah Emily Anderson, Martha MacIsaac, Joey Klein
Release date: August 24, 2018 (online, limited theatrical)
Studio/ Production Co: Digital Interference Productions
Length: 98 minutes