Monday, August 27, 2018

Movie Review: What Keeps You Alive

What Keeps You Alive *** / *****
Directed by: Colin Minihan.
Written by: Colin Minihan.
Starring: Hannah Emily Anderson (Jackie), Brittany Allen (Jules), Martha MacIsaac (Sarah), Joey Klein (Daniel), Charlotte Lindsay Marron (Young Jackie). 
Jules and Jackie seem like a happy couple when we first meet them – although the fact that they are heading up to a secluded cabin in the woods for the weekend – to celebrate their one-year-anniversary should be a red flag, as no couple in movie history has ever headed up to a remote cabin for the weekend, and had things go well. Since you walk into the movie knowing it’s a horror film, you know something is going to go wrong – and of course, it inevitably does. What Keeps You Alive is a stylish and entertaining horror film, which kind of switches gears half way through. Both halves have their problems, but both halves have their strengths as well. It’s not an altogether successful film – but its ambitions, style and two fine performances, make it worth your time just the same.
In the film, Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) head up to the family cabin of Jackie for a long weekend. At first things seem fine, but it doesn’t take long for a sense of unease to set in. An old friend of Jackie’s stops by the cabin – it hasn’t been used in a while, and the lights were on, so she was curious. But she doesn’t call Jackie by her name – she uses a different name. This makes Jules suspicious, but Jackie has an explanation that makes at least some plausible sense. This is a pattern that repeats itself through the first half – something odd about Jackie pops up, Jules is suspicious, but Jackie has an explanation. Because Jules loves Jackie, she finds herself questioning herself – why can’t she trust the woman she loves. Surely, it is Jules herself that has something wrong with her, not Jackie. (Spoilers below).
The second half of the film kicks off with a bang though – when Jules finds out just how wrong she was – when Jackie, suddenly and without warning, pushes her off a cliff. She ends up at the bottom, supposedly dead, but like all good women in horror films, not quite. Thus begins a cat and mouse game between the two women – with one trying to survive, the other trying to kill her. The only other characters are that old friend of Jackie’s – and her husband – who come by for dinner one night.
Both halves of the film work, although to be honest, both have problems. In the first half, it’s all about tension building – as Jackie is gas lighting Jules in ways that the audience can sense more than Jules can – she is blinded by love, and wants to believe Jackie, and we aren’t (we also have the benefit of knowing we’re watching a horror movie, and Jules doesn’t know she’s in one). It strains credibility a bit just how many red flags are shot up – and how many Jules just bats away, but for the most part it works. The second half has some gapping logic holes in it (many of them surround Sarah, the old friend, who apparently always thought Jackie was a psychopath, although up until the point her husband announces this to Jackie, we’re given no indication that Sarah actually feels this way). You also have to question Jules’ action late in the film, which are the actions that only make sense if you want to give the movie the satisfying conclusion it has, and not care how you get there. It’s also a little disappointing that when it comes right down to it, the only explanation we’re given for Jackie is that she’s a psychopath, who was playing a really, really long game here.
Yet flaws aside, What Keeps You Alive is a stylish movie throughout – making great use of its Northern Ontario locations to increase the scares, without really resorting to cheap jump scares too often. Allen’s performance in particular is excellent as a version of the “final girl” trope, but this one given a little more depth than normal. For her part Anderson is good as Jackie – but once she goes into psycho mode, there’s not a lot of nuance there. I do think the apparent last minute change, when an actor dropped out of that role, to make it two women adds an extra dimension to the film – and its refreshing to see a film about gay characters that isn’t about them being gay.
Overall, What Keeps You Alive is a good enough horror film that it makes me want to see whatever Writer/director Colin Minihan (as well as actress Brittany Allen) do next. This is a good film whose flaws are readily apparent, but doesn’t sink the whole film.

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