By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Hannah Emily Anderson, Brittany Allen and Martha MacIsaac
Written and directed by Colin Minihan
A number of reviews of WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE, and even some of the publicity material, have given away a major plot twist that occurs at about the half-hour mark. Since the film works best without foreknowledge of this development, I won’t be spoiling it here, and advise against reading about the movie elsewhere if you want the surprise preserved.
WHAT KEEPS YOU ALIVE (in select theaters and on VOD this Friday) is the latest from Colin Minihan, who previously (teamed with Stuart Ortiz as The Vicious Brothers) explored time-honored horror tropes such as found-footage haunted asylums in the GRAVE ENCOUNTERS duo, alien abduction in EXTRATERRESTRIAL and zombies in IT STAINS THE SANDS RED. He goes for a more personal story this time, centering on Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Minihan regular Brittany Allen), a married couple celebrating their one-year anniversary with a getaway to Jackie’s lakeside vacation house, surrounded by a deep forest. Anderson and Allen, who appeared in JIGSAW together, have a natural, intimate chemistry that immediately has us believing in them as love partners, and Minihan and cinematographer David Schuurman take us on a single-take tour of the house early on, establishing the geography of this locale for horrors to come.
With the emotional and physical setup swiftly taken care of, Minihan begins dropping hints about trouble in this woodsy paradise. “I have a confession to make: I think I love this place more than you,” Jackie tells Jules as they arrive, though she’s kidding (right?). Then one of Jackie’s old friends, Sarah (THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT’s Martha MacIsaac), who’s staying with her husband across the lake, drops by for a visit, and everything’s cordial except for the fact that she calls Jackie “Megan.” Clearly, Jackie has been keeping secrets from Jules, and Jules isn’t happy about it, though Jackie reassures her that her real name was simply part of an old life she wants to leave behind. The more she divulges to Jules, however, the more it’s evident that her past isn’t going away, and that big reveal suddenly and shockingly makes us see Jackie in an entirely new light.
What follows is a survival-horror scenario that combines graphic violence with a psychological war of wills, and isn’t quite as involving as the setup. That opening act is finely tuned for mounting tension via well-observed moments of behavior and dialogue, coupled with the ominous mood elicited by Schuurman’s photography and Allen’s own score. Once the truth about the situation is sprung, the protagonists’ actions don’t always ring entirely true, and there are points where it feels like Minihan is avoiding having them take obvious courses of action in the interest of expanding the running time.
Still, there are also numerous moments that have the desired, unsettling effect, particularly when Jules delivers a dinner-table monologue that has an entirely different emotional context than it seems to on the surface. Allen is quite good charting Jules’ arc from bewildered victim to persevering heroine, while Anderson, whose role is somewhat less persuasively defined, nonetheless plays it with conviction. Minihan finds ways to imaginatively vary the atmosphere as the film goes along: A second run all through the house is contrastingly cut up into jagged, handheld bits; a lengthy sequence is eerily lensed in black light (properly motivated by what’s happening within it); and one major fight in the house’s upper level is presented from the lower one, as we only hear the tussle and watch hanging lights swing from the impacts. Uneven as some of the film is, there’s more than enough to its story, technique and performances to keep it alive through the final shot.