Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A young couple, vacationing in a remote cabin in the woods to celebrate a year of marriage, are terrorized by a psychopathic killer…
Oh, you have heard that one? A hundred times? Well, maybe this time the killer isn’t some faceless goon outside the door. Maybe the one threatening you is the person you’re very closest to, and there are things, disturbing things, about your partner that she’s concealed for a long time, and maybe those details mean doom for you, or at least several stab wounds.
After his higher-concept outings like the Grave Encounters films, 2014’s alien invasion horror Extraterrestrial, and the 2016 zombie thriller It Stains The Sands Red, Colin Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive turns his focus inward, to a much simpler and more conventional cabin-in-the-woods slasher film. But along the way, Minihan applies some distinct strokes and near-flawless execution (so to speak) of his characters, setting, and mood, that keep things from feeling warmed-over.
Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen) have been together for a year, and are on a retreat to Jackie’s family’s cabin. As they settle into the cottage, small details about Jackie’s upbringing start coming out. An avid hunter and survivalist, Jackie’s father instilled her with a very special set of skills, and perhaps a bloodthirsty streak as well. When Jackie turns on Jules, making (or attempting to make) her into the latest in a long line of victims, it triggers a harrowing chase, and some stunning realizations along the way.
The intense colour palette and the striking Northern Ontario wilderness provides the perfect backdrop for the tension-building that Minihan does here. At first, it plays as idyllic as Jackie and Jules enjoy each other’s company, listening to a Silverchair song that I, for one, forgot existed (along with Silverchair themselves – whatever happened to those dudes?). It takes almost no time, though, for the woods to turn into a menacing playground for Jackie’s twisted game of cat-and-mouse. Counter to the dark claustrophobia of the majority of horror outings, this pursuit often takes place in broad daylight, in wide open spaces that should be peaceful in any other context. This makes Jackie’s game even more terrifying, because it truly feels as though she has every angle covered, and there’s no escape.
Interestingly, and probably tellingly, the Jackie character was not originally conceived as a female role. When the (male) actor originally cast had to drop out, Minihan seized the opportunity to recast Anderson as the film’s foil, and I think What Keeps You Alive is better for it in every possible way. Jackie is a merciless hunter who takes obvious pleasure in the pursuit, capture, and dispatching of her prey. She’s smart, calculating, and so manipulative when the situation calls for it, that you can easily understand why Jules hooked up with this creature in the first place. We’re privy, not just to Jackie’s kills, but to her machinations and meticulous preparation for the hunt. She lays out exactly what she’s going to do, and there’s not a single thing that anyone can do to stop her. There’s a strong argument to be made that the much better-developed Jackie is the real protagonist of the film, rather than Jules, but I don’t think it’s ever possible to really cheer for her, in the way that you might do for Freddy, Jason, or any of those monsters as they mow down their victims.
Like Anderson, Allen is perfectly dialled into her character, which is important when she and Anderson are quite nearly the only characters onscreen in What Keeps You Alive. Allen’s Jules, though she makes a couple of dumb decisions that ultimately seal the fate of the few peripheral characters, mostly reacts as anyone would upon learning that their wife was concealing sadistic tendencies. Her total, body-clenching heartbreak and anguish builds and builds through What Keeps You Alive’s runtime, until it finally boils over. All this is cut together with flashbacks from Jackie and Jules’s relationship that begin to look very sinister in the context of Jackie’s transformation.
The most immediate comparison for What Keeps You Alive is 2003’s Haute Tension, though What Keeps You Alive is a far more grounded film, and eschews the seminal French New Wave horror’s ridiculous third act. To be clear, What Keeps You Alive does resolve itself in a way that I can honestly say I’ve never seen in a horror film before, but I don’t think it’s riddled with the same plot holes (or at least they aren’t as glaringly obvious) that Haute Tension is. After a bunch of false finishes, What Keeps You Alive’s conclusion features several scenes whose imagery and implications stuck with me long after the film was over. The setting and some other stylistic choices by Minihan do the heavy lifting here, but Anderson’s facial expressions and total commitment to the character deserve recognition as well. This is a movie that knows how to stick the landing.
Sometimes, you want something completely innovative, a concept that you could never conceive of on your own. But other times, and What Keeps You Alive is one of these times, you want a classic concept that is executed at the highest level. Minihan gets the big things right; great shots that make you want to visit that pastoral scene, and great performances from the leads that make you glad you didn’t. He also gets the little things right, like Jackie tying up her hair before going hunting, or a piano solo during one of the film’s most affecting scenes, or the fact that this movie has a fucking rowboat chase scene in it and it rules so hard. This is already one of my favourite horrors of 2018 and one that I can see myself returning to again and again. Don’t miss out on What Keeps You Alive when it drops on VOD later this month – who knows, your very life might depend on it.
What Keeps You Alive is distributed by IFC Midnight, and will be available on VOD and in theatres on August 25.