When you watch a movie is important. Whether it’s seeing a slasher with a rowdy Saturday night audience, popping a kid’s animation on for young family members or throwing on a mood lifting comedy when you need cheering up, sometimes the difference between liking a film and disliking it is as much about the when as the what.
I saw What Keeps You Alive at the London FrightFest about 20 minutes after attending a screening of the new 4K restoration of Halloween. John Carpenter’s genre defining slasher is about perfect, and asking a new film to sit next to one that has been beloved for 40 years is grossly unfair. Yet, watching the two back to back drew out interesting similarities and differences.
Furthermore, What Keeps You Alive somehow stood up to the experience, proving to be a striking and exciting genre film.
Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) brings her new wife Jules (Brittany Allen) to her old family home in the woods by the lake. There’s a horror film set up for you. The relationship between the two feels so authentic and alive that it put me on the edge of my seat; this was surely a home invasion film waiting to happen. Only, it doesn’t happen. Instead, the two go hiking in the woods and they chat with Jackie’s childhood friend and her husband, who live across the lake.
Jules starts to question whether there’s something she should know about Jackie’s relationship with her old friend. Whether there are secrets between the two. Whether there might be other things she doesn’t know.
Then someone does something. Things get nasty and violent very quickly and very unexpectedly. What Keeps You Alive kicks into gear with a brilliantly effective rug pull moment and from there on out, it is relentlessly tense.
Writer and director Colin Minihan paces his film perfectly. It lulls you into comfort in its first act, engrossing you in the drama and the dynamics of a relationship between two likeable characters. When the film gets going, though, it really moves. And because of the time we spent with those likeable characters in the early going, we’re invested in them when the horror does kick in.
At its best, What Keeps You Alive is mean and believable and has a streak of dark humour running through it. It’s not laugh out loud funny, it’s smirk and nod funny. It explores relationships and trust and is violent and frightening. There is so much to recommend in this film. From gruesome injuries to compelling plot twists, it packs an admirable amount into its frugal runtime.
There’s all that to praise, and that’s without even mentioning the performances from its two lead actors. Allen and Anderson carry a tremendous weight in this film, with much resting on their performances, and they do so admirably.
It’s also a very pretty film. Minihan and cinematographer David Schuurman make great use of the setting. In their film, the woods and the lake are both endlessly expansive yet claustrophobic and confining.
It’s a sequence on the lake, where What Keeps You Alive is at its dread-inducing best, that made me think of Halloween. Just as I’d been struck by how the tension in Halloween was wound unbearably taut by the score, the ominous and heavy music in What Keeps You Alive elevates the material considerably and exerts a similar squeeze on the audience. The score comes courtesy of star Brittany Allen, who horror fans may recognise from last years Saw revival Jigsaw.
In the third act, the wheels come slightly loose, and again I found myself thinking of Halloween. Carpenter’s film is a masterpiece of simplicity. The end of What Keeps You Alive is needlessly complicated and becomes frustrating. The muddled ending, which breezes past several reasonable stopping points, is a shame but doesn’t entirely derail things. It stands out as odd, though, because it’s so fussy and the rest of the film isn’t.
Disorderly though the final act is, it’s still very enjoyable, full of great character stuff and ‘oh god that’s horrible’ moments. The constant twists and turns feel chaotic but they’re certainly not boring.
An unexpected treat, it’s hard to describe this one without giving too much away, which we definitely don’t want to do. What Keeps You Alive is a fantastically nasty and believable horror drama. Do watch out for it.
What Keeps You Alive is out selected cinemas and on VOD platforms now.