What Keeps you Alive is either the worst queer horror movie or one of the best queer horror movies, depending on who you ask, and there is evidence that it is both. Written and directed by Colin Minihan (best known for Grave Encounters), the script was originally written for a heterosexual couple and changed at the last minute, and it shows.
*Please note that there are spoilers contained in this review.
One can easily see how What Keeps You Alive would play out as the typical bloody predator-prey torture porn in the heteronormative way – Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson who also wrote the score) in the dominant cis male husband role with manly hunting prowess, and Jules (Brittany Allen, The Boys) doing her best Shelley Duvall in The Shining impression as the physically outmatched and mercilessly hunted wife. However, since this is indeed a Queer Horror movie and the protagonist and antagonist are, in fact, a married lesbian couple, the normally cisgendered roles get turned on their heads.
The plot is simple, a lesbian couple goes on vacation for their one-year anniversary in Jackie’s family’s isolated lake-front cabin in the woods. First questions arise: why have they not been here before? How short was this courtship?
Moving on – they are enjoying some wine together on their first night there, Jackie pulls out a guitar and sings a song about a demon (?) while looking inexplicably intense and sinister (or hot if you’re Jules) before Jules pulls the guitar out of her hands because she can’t resist her spell and must have her immediately; although this isn’t a gratuitous sex scene, it showcases the tenderness in their relationship. They are interrupted by a car pulling up outside – is it a menacing stranger there to kill them? Psych! It’s just Sarah (Martha MacIsaac, The Last House on the Left) a childhood friend of Jackie’s from across the lake checking on the house that’s been uninhabited for years suddenly lit up like a Christmas tree.
Sarah calls Jackie “Megan.”
How long do you stay when you realize the person you married is a stranger?
Jackie explains this away, saying the name never felt like her and when she figured out who she was, she changed it. Isn’t this the kind of information that comes up on a marriage license? This explanation, which plays on the shared self-discovery experience, along with a gifted locket softens Jules into forgiving Jackie.
It has to be noted here that the visuals of the lake and woods that make up the scenery of What Keeps You Alive are absolutely beautiful. While the movie takes a sinister turn, the nature that surrounds the couple remains peaceful, never becoming part of the horror, and the movie is rife with magnificent views of their Canadian woods location.
The couple does some target practice where Jackie displays her shooting acumen, and later she tells an unsettling story about her father waking her up and forcing her to hunt. On this hunt, she shoots a black bear, but it doesn’t die, and when she goes to finish the job, the gun jams and she just stands there and watches the life slowly drain from the bear until it dies. Jules is finally starting to have her doubts that she just might not know Jackie as well as she thought she did. When Jackie leaves her sleeping the next day, Jules decides to investigate by rowing across the lake to Sarah’s house to ask the one person who knew Jackie/Megan before.
At Sarah’s house, Jules finds a picture of three girls together – Sarah, Jackie/Megan, and…Jenny? Oh Jackie never told Jules about Jenny? She passed away a couple of weeks after that photo was taken, and it was a “really big deal” to them. The next day Jules confronts Jackie about Jenny, and Jackie tearfully explains that Jenny drowned trying to race Jackie across the lake. Jules lets her guard down again, and this is when Jackie pushes her off of a cliff.
What Keeps You Alive – Nature vs. Nurture
Jules survives the fall, and Jackie ruthlessly hunts her through woods she knows like the back of her hand. Jules keeps herself alive through sheer force of will (and unexplained medical acumen), managing to stay just far enough ahead of Jackie to avoid death. Jackie at first explains that she’s doing it for the insurance money, playing the black widow, but later admits to being a psychopath. She tells Jules that she isn’t burdened by emotion – and it seems the only time she genuinely feels anything is when she kills. At one point, Jules asks Jackie if her father did this to her. Jackie’s response is it’s nature, not nurture – and isn’t that obvious allegory to the nature vs. nurture debate when it comes to being LGBTQIA+?
What Keeps You Alive eschews traditional gender roles.
What Keeps You Alive is frustrating as hell. The stupid and inexplicable choices Jules makes from the moment she stays in a secluded cabin in the middle of the woods with a woman she CLEARLY doesn’t know as well as she thought, throughout the chase (more can than mouse) are infuriating. There are obvious lesbian stereotypes – Jules used to be a great softball player – but alternately, the usual queer movie roles are avoided: the gay that can do no wrong, the sexual predator, and the “token” gay. Additionally, the lesbian-as-sex kitten horror movie trope is also absent. The central relationship in What Keeps You Alive can be triggering to victims of domestic violence as Jules’ bewilderment at the cruelty of her partner, the person she THOUGHT she knew is devastatingly realistic.
In the end, at just over 90 minutes, What Keeps You Alive is worth a watch. It is refreshing to see queer people not being victimized by heteronormative culture for once, and the patriarchy is nowhere to be seen. The lesbian couple demonstrates the reality of there not being assigned gender roles in queer relationships, as neither “wears the pants” in the relationship. The tension remains high even as you want to shake your fists and shout “WHHHHHHYYYYY” at the ludicrous decisions Jules makes, and there IS a small plot twist at the end.
The recurring thematic material in the movie was told to Jackie by her father the day she killed the black bear. He said “you only kill what keeps you alive”. So what keeps YOU alive?
Do you have Queer Horror suggestions? Send them this way in the comments!!