OVERLOOK Review: "What Keeps You Alive" is What Keeps Us Alive

WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE is part of the 2018 Overlook Film Festival and has one more showing Sunday April 22nd at 12:45PM. Find out all the info here!

The thing I hate the most about film criticism today is the flagrant lack of candor when it comes to revealing a specific plot point that, based on its surprise, can impact an aspect of the experience of watching a film like Colin Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive. But at the same time that plot point is typically key to thoroughly discussing said film, and furthermore based on recent marketing trends, is destined to be spoiled by any number of trailers and posters, so is it even our duty to conceal that surprise as best we can when discussing this film so audiences may get to have the best possible experience?

Fuck yes it’s our responsibility. Because the experience of watching What Keeps You Alive is nothing short of thrilling and I want to retain that for whoever gets to watch this remarkable film next.

On the other hand I still want to discuss What Keeps You Alive, push it, champion it, and make sure everyone knows about this film because...just damn, son! But since it is still in its early festival run it may take a hot second for wider audiences to get to see it, so I’m going to do what few have and give you a Choose Your Own Adventure review based on your feelings on movie trailers. If you are fine with watching film trailers, meaning you can still have a blast even knowing some early but potentially major spoilers in the film, read both of the following sections. But if you want to go in so fresh so clean, then just read the following:

or Those Who Don’t Watch Trailers:

Jackie and Jules are a newlywed couple who have decided to spend their one year anniversary weekend at Jackie’s families cabin. Jules begins to notice that Jackie is acting strangely since getting there, and with the mysterious visitation of one of Jackie’s childhood friends, Jules discovers that Jackie’s real name is Megan and becomes suspect that something much more insidious is going on within the woods. As the truth comes to the surface, it leaves one of the women fighting for survival as she tries to piece together why. 

Colin Minihan, one half of The Vicious Brothers and the creative madman behind the exceptional Grave Encounters continues his solo career after his debut It Stains The Sands Red and it couldn’t be more of a knock out. Adopting the same visceral, hand held shooting style that we’ve become accustomed to in Minihan’s work, the fluid camera movement here acts like a third character in every scene. Pulling away the fourth wall just enough to place the audience unnervingly within the scene. Compounded by David Schuurman’s lush cinematography, the entire film feels like we are watching a dark and brooding nature documentary. The weight of the film rests on the shoulders of Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen, who couldn’t be more adept for their roles. What Keeps You Alive is familiar but brilliantly fresh thanks to the fascinating gender dynamics bucking every single expectation we have from a genre film. If you’re the type of film fan who actively has a philosophy of not watching trailers so as to experience something as fresh as possible, this movie is for you.

For Those Who Do Watch Trailers:

In a film when I see a cabin in the woods, I get excited. After all, one of the most important gateway horror films for myself (and countless others) was Evil Dead 2. So as Jackie is caught in a trance early in What Keeps You Alive that transitions into a haunting song she plays on an acoustic guitar, I was about to lose my damn mind. By not having the conventional cis-het couple in this familiar genre scenario, we’re already going to see a new kind of nuance to this subgenre. 

And then Jackie pushes Jules off a cliff. 

And then she begins practicing her call to 911, trying to get just the right tone and believability that the operators will buy that Jules’ fall was truly an accident. You see, what we didn’t know and what Jules didn’t know was that she married a psychopath with a Golden Age of Hollywood motive: Jackie/Megan marries women, has them take out a life insurance policy, then murders them for the money. It’s this heightened piece of Hollywood that I found the most striking quality of What Keeps You Alive. While the entire film is gorgeously shot and brilliantly acted, weighted in heartbreaking emotional realness that we rarely see in survivalist films, it’s peppered with what I can only describe as heightened naturalism: these recognizable movie moments that are being utilized within realism. 

These heightened cinematic moments make us want to throw up our hands and cheer, but it’s not because the not in the typical way genre fans are familiar with. This is mostly a testament to Brittany Allen as Jules, she is a bomb ass fierce mother fucker but nothing feels put on, or for show. While Allen the actor may know that this is a “Mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” moment, Allen the actor as Jules the character never lets us see her relish in this like we expect in genre films. We expect the mugging at the camera, the power pose, the catchphrase that accompanies a litany of our favorite 80s fims. In these moments though Jules is purely empowered, but ultimately frightened and heartbroken and a real fucking person. This isn’t about the audience relishing in her vengeance, but about Jules coming to terms with losing her wife, in more ways than one. How would you feel if the love of your life was not only trying to murder you, but is a psychopath that would make Patrick Bateman blush? While the narrative is high drama, we recognize in Jules the honest truth about how someone would react in this situation: with resilient trepidation.

The perfect fusion of this is also in how, while What Keeps You Alive may not have living dead, it is still clearly inspired by Sam Raimi’s seminal film. As Jules is assessing her injuries after making her way back to Jackie’s cabin, the camera erratically angles itself in extreme close ups that instantly brought to mind Ash Williams chainsawing off his possessed hand or strapping that chainsaw onto his bloody stump in a toolshed. The energy, the brashness tangled with Brittany Allen’s brutally honest intensity as Jules feels right at home with this new wave of phenomenal portraits of women in horror, from A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night and Raw, to 2018’s Revenge and Cold Hell.

And. I. AM. HERE. FOR. IT.

While audiences and non-genre critics alike may be throwing around the phrase “Elevated Horror” to describe a specific set of films that they have deigned to be above the rest, an asinine phrase that requires no more commentary, it’s these films that are blazing new trails in this genre. Offering us the familiar that is wholly new. With the other films I mentioned, What Keeps You Alive is the future of horror.