It’s taken decades for lesbian horror to deviate from its roots of alluring, vampiric love affairs. The niche’s latest, Colin Minihan’s What Keeps You Alive, is a top-notch entry into the underutilized genre. With the assistance of its ethereal Ontario location, the director-writer’s fourth feature examines overwhelming fear, and what can occur when love turns into darkness. While defying expectations, the film delivers a rush of adrenaline and raw emotion the entire way through, creating an intense experience that’s worth beholding.
The romance between Jackie and Jules (played by Hannah Emily Anderson and Brittany Allen, respectively) appears vibrant from the moment the audience meets them. Commemorating the one-year anniversary of their marriage, they arrive to their destination (an isolated cabin in the woods) blasting Silverchair’s “Anthem for the Year 2000.” Continuing their enamored bliss, Jules declares that it’s their song, allowing it to take on a whole new meaning — a celebration of their love. Music continues to be one of What Keeps You Alive’s major forces, especially with the addition of Allen’s intriguing, electronic synths (earning her first credit as composer). Before terror erupts, Jackie plays Munroe’s “Bloodlet” on an acoustic guitar for her wife on a quiet evening. “There’s a demon inside,” the track’s most repeated line, acts as a mantra that reveals the truth behind the film’s antagonist. Unbeknownst to Jules, the woman she’s in love with has been concealing her monstrous nature.
Anderson tackles her role impressively, boasting a glare that could make anyone both fall in love and fear for their life. Jackie is openly gay, but that’s never a reason for her appetite for violence. The film’s treatment of lesbianism is not only entirely refreshing, but it’s commendable as well. Though at the forefront, it’s not a big deal, nor does it get tied to the major conflict. The respect and normalization given to its gayness matters most, demonstrating that horror can excel with inclusion just as much as romantic dramas.
Allen provides an absolutely visceral performance as Jules. After being abruptly pushed off a cliff by Jackie during a hike, Jules experiences pain through both body and mind. While laboriously trekking through the forest, tons of blood drips down her face as she reflects on tender memories of her and Jackie. With each thought, she becomes more appalled at the betrayal that unfolded, and accepts that it will only grow much worse.
What Keeps You Alive bears a resemblance to another lesbian thriller, Joachim Trier’s Thelma (2017), as both films display that true horror runs much deeper than merely blood, violence and fear. For the Norwegian director’s eponymous character, the depths of horror lie within a lack of self-acceptance. But in Minihan’s film, utmost terror resides in being deceived by someone you’ve completely fallen in love with. Who does one look to when the most admired and trusted person in their lives turns on them?
A blacklight sequence is easily the film’s most captivating moment. Following another bloodbath caused by Jackie, she retreats to a piano to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” intercut with her cleaning blood off of walls, floors and her own skin. Purples, deep blues and touches of pink fill the frame — gorgeous yet chilling. There’s a look of gratification on Jackie’s face, albeit menacing, as if the cleanup is a rejuvenating ritual for her, communicating that she never fails to finds beauty within the destruction she thrives on creating.
Minihan’s tale is a moody, memorable work of art that dares its audience to meditate on the layers and anxieties of love and deceit. The recurring theme of juxtaposing beauty and brutality adds a unique intricacy that films in its likeness rarely explore. Complemented by clean editing and well-written dialogue, the gripping execution from the cast is guaranteed to cause gasps and enchantment. Aesthetically breathtaking, David Schuurman’s cinematography makes excellent use of the location, contrasting lush forest greens with the radiant blues of the lake; viewers become familiar with the remote cabin almost as quickly as Jules does during her fight for survival. As What Keeps You Alive contemplates, you can never completely know what goes on in someone’s mind, no matter how much you love that person.
Ciara Pitts (@CiaraNPitts) is a lesbian freelance writer with an obsession for film analysis and LGBTQ+ cinema. Her other interests include alternative music and endless rewatches of Thelma. She has previously written for AfterEllen and GO Magazine.