What Keeps You Alive: An Art-House Interpretation of Survival Horror

This past week has been a good one for Canadian-made thrillers. While it hasn’t received the same level of advanced attention as the Summer of 84, What Keeps You Alive has managed to generate some positive buzz. Written and directed by Colin Minihan (Grave Encounters), the Canadian survival-thriller debuted earlier this year at the SXSW festival. Distributed by IFC Midnight and available now on most VOD-streaming platforms, What Keeps You Alive promises to add some art house elegance to a subgenre often associated with grindhouse films.

Synopsis

Married couple Jackie and Jules take a trip to Jackie’s childhood remote cabin to celebrate their first anniversary together. When a neighbour from across the lake pays a visit and refers to Jackie as ‘Megan’, Jules begins to question jut how much she knows about her partner. After a sudden and unexpected turn of events, Jules finds herself alone in the woods fighting for her own survival as she’s hunted by the one person she loves.

An Art House Re-Imagining of Survival Horror

Some reviews have dismissed What Keeps You Alive as a slasher film distinguished only by its characters. This is a brutally inaccurate characterization of this Canadian independent thriller. Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive is perhaps best described as an art-house survival horror thriller. But even that description doesn’t do the movie justice, which is in large part due to Minihan’s intelligent screenplay. That is, Minhan plays in a ‘sandbox’ that will be familiar to horror fans without rigidly confining his movie to each and every expected twist.

As the movie looks to trudge along a familiar path, Minihan quickly shits the focus back to its characters resulting in a thriller that feels remarkably fresh.

What Keeps You Alive generally follows the basic plot beats of survival horror, but Minihan’s story refuses to slavishly follow the narrative. Instead, Minihan opts to root his thriller in the characters and their relationship. Even as Minihan quietly introduces warning signs, the moment at which the movie shifts into ‘survival mode’ is a sudden act of violence that shocks. As the movie looks to trudge along a familiar path, Minihan shifts the focus back to its characters resulting in a thriller that feels remarkably fresh. Not every part of What Keeps You Alive manages to avoid over-used tropes. When Minihan introduces another couple across the lake, it doesn’t take a season horror fan to know what will inevitably happen to them.

Expertly Paced Tension

A psychological thriller is only as good as the amount of tension it can build. In this regard, What Keeps You Alive is an extremely economical thriller that makes use of the entirety of its running time. An ominous foreboding hangs over the film’s first third serving to keep you on edge even when the action slows down. Minihan later crafts several memorably tense moments. Jules’ attempt to navigate a canoe across the lake with Jackie in pursuit offers an early white-knuckle scene. A later dinner party with the couple from across the lake illustrates how effectively Minihan exploit his audience. As mentioned above, there’s not much mystery concerning what’s going to happen, but how it plays out is a fund edge-of-your seat scene.

Beautiful Cinematography and Stunning Lead Performances

Cinematographer David Schuurman captures the beauty of the Canadian wilderness along with its isolation. What Keeps You Alive may be an example of survival horror, an exploitation subgenre, but it’s a far cry from the grimy and ugly aesthetics characteristic of its low-budget predecessors There are no washed out colours in this movie. Simply put, What Keeps You Alive is a beautifully shot film.

But this is Brittany Allen’s show as she turns in an absolutely phenomenal performance.

Even if What Keeps You Alive occasionally stays into cliched territory, it’s pulled back to art house quality by the amazing performances of Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen. As the psychopathic black widow, Jackie, Anderson has the more thankless task given that her character is a little underwritten and fairly consistent with the noir femme fatale narrative. Fortunately, Anderson’s performance breathes an air of believability into her character, making her all the more chilling. But this is Brittany Allen’s show as she turns in an absolutely phenomenal performance. The pain and betrayal are so vividly etched into her face that one can’t help but instantly empathize with her. Allen conveys a raw desperation that adds to each moment of suspense.

A Surprising Late Summer Genre Entry

What Keeps You Alive delivers a surprising late-summer genre entry for fans. Admittedly, some viewers will be less impressed with the lean, methodical pacing and focus on the characters’ relationship. This is a not a hyper-violent, jump-scare laden outing. At times, What Keeps You Alive feels almost meditative as it explores the motives and emotional impact of Jackie’s duplicitous trappings. It’s a beautifully shot film with excellent performances and well-staged moments of suspense. For patient horror fans, What Keeps You Alive is another 2018 entry that may make a few ‘Best Of’ lists.

THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: A-

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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