Shortly before filming began on Colin Minihan’s bloody thriller What Keeps You Alive, the actor cast to play the film’s villain—a secretly psychotic husband who lures his wife to a remote cabin in the woods on their first wedding anniversary to kill her for sport—dropped out. Stunned by the departure, Minihan struggled to devise a new direction for the film when he struck on an idea: recast the husband as a wife, transforming the two leads into lesbians. This was perhaps the most interesting thing Minihan could have done, for the old Bluebeard routine has been done to death, as has the murderous lesbian, stretching as far back as Lambert Hillyer’s under-appreciated Dracula’s Daughter (1936). However, psychotic murderers within the framework of lesbian matrimony? That certainly smacks of enough novelty for some originality.
The tragedy is that What Keeps You Alive squanders its casting with a formulaic story, predictable twists, and a screenplay so hackneyed you can guess lines before they’re said. Consider the freshly cast villain, Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson ), a cold-hearted psychopath who masks their insanity with a demure, lovey-dovey exterior which they can put on and take off at a moment’s notice. (This is merely the first of many elements it liberally borrows from Jordan Peele’s debut, along with a certain plot twist involving Jackie’s past, the rural forest setting, and many of the third act story beats.) Her best scenes are in first act foreshadowings, particularly a haunting scene where she serenades her unsuspecting wife Jules (Brittany Allen) by the fireside in their cabin with an evil-sounding folk song which lures them into a near hypnotic state. As soon as she unexpectedly shoves Jules off the side of a cliff to kill her about twenty minutes in, she becomes yet another rote slasher villain, a female Michael Myers crossed with the T-800.
Mercifully, the film is told primarily from Jules’ perspective, and Allen proves herself a captivating actress, transforming painfully bland material into something effective and occasionally striking, especially the scenes where she struggles to hide from Jackie and tend to her wounds. Indeed, the most sickeningly effective scene in the film isn’t any of the deaths—yes, there are idiotic neighbors with the survival instincts of lobotomized lemmings who come poking around—it’s instead the scene where Jules sews her gashed abdomen shut with string and pliers while trying to keep her screams down, unsure of whether or not Jackie is close enough to hear her. Usually the killers are the most memorable part of thrillers but What Keeps You Alive offers one of the rare cases where it’s the heroine who steals our attention.
What Keeps You Alive isn’t just a bad, predictable movie, it’s also occasionally unaware of how silly it can be. In one scene Jackie delivers an evil villainess monologue explaining her plans and motivations to a captive Jules while literally playing the Moonlight Sonata on the piano. In another, we watch a chase across a lake with Jules and Jackie in separate rowboats—on the surface, an ingenious set-up for a critically wounded victim fleeing an unstoppable killer. But the film makes a point of showing that Jackie has a rifle and can literally shoot Jules at any time, she just chooses to row up beside her for…dramatic effect? It undercuts the tension as badly as if the shower scene in Vertigo (1958) was scored to the sound of a kazoo instead of a violin.
Does the film have effective moments? Yes. This is only because they’re riffs on other, better movies. The rest is disappointingly underwhelming.