There's a Demon Inside: What Keeps You Alive

I fell in love for the first time when I was 30. In hindsight, I can see it. But at the time, it happened so slowly, over the course of a year, that I didn't realize I was in love until it was too late. It was a bunch of little things that happened. Things that used to annoy me slowly became endearing. The way he was always there, barging into my introverted life became a joy, rather than a pain. Slowly, he chipped away the walls and the armor I kept up constantly, both to protect myself and to keep others at a distance. He got me to let my guard down.

And then he ripped my heart from my chest and stomped it, bloody, into the ground.

Facts Are Facts

Writer: Colin Miniham
Director: Colin Miniham
Gayly: fantastic performances and shocking turns
Dreadful: narrative contrivances ruin immersion
Pairs With: Revenge
Availability: Theatres, VOD (rent)

It's Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie's (Hannah Emily Anderson) one year wedding anniversary and, to celebrate, they go to Jackie's old home, a remote cabin in the mountains. This is the first time Jules has seen the home and as she walks around the cabin, the camera following her in a remarkable one take, tracking shot as she explores, she starts to see Jackie's past. That past is brought further to the forefront that night when car lights show up outside and we are introduced to Jackie's girlhood friend, Sarah (Martha MacIsaac). Or should I say, Megan's girlhood friend?

It seems that Jackie has a couple secrets; one of which is that her name is actually Megan. This revelation angers Jules and starts to shake the foundation of their relationship. If Jackie can lie and omit facts about her childhood, what else is she lying about?  Over the course of the following day, Jules begins to learn more and more about Jackie and realizes she doesn't truly know her wife.

That's all I'm going to say about the plot of What Keeps You Alive because from here it spins out of control and involves a number of moments that had me gasping. The emotional weight of the film falls squarely on the two lead actors. Their chemistry is honest and lived-in. Brittany Allen, in particular, is absolutely fascinating to watch. As Jules learns more about her wife's childhood, you can see the bewilderment and the pain that there are parts of Jackie's life that she's never shared. She brings such pathos to the character and the film.

Frustratingly, sometimes things happen because the plot demands. In such a natural and down-to-earth story, the horror tropes that start to insert themselves into the last half would often break my suspension of disbelief. But Allen's performance constantly brought me back. That said, it all culminates in a breathtakingly amazing climax that was both chillingly dark and impressive. I love when a movie isn't afraid to go there. 

As much as I would like you to keep reading, I'd like to recommend you simply just go watch the movie and then come back here because What Keeps You Alive is a very surprising film. I'm not really going to spoil anything except one piece of dialogue but I do recommend just going in blind.

Still with me? I expected a slowburn horror film but got a mean and nasty little bloody gem that was constantly keeping me on my toes with the directions and choices it made. It has a lot of twists and turns. Some, as mentioned above, don't necessarily work as they tend to be narrative contrivances to get characters in particular places. But more often than not, the changes in power dynamics and the twists the story took kept me glued to the screen.

That it's a story about power dynamics focused on two queer women is remarkable. Apparently, this was a serendipitous happenstance. When the male lead dropped out, writer/director Colin Minihan reconsidered his casting and made both leads women. I appreciate this narrative, regardless of how it came to be.

The fact that the women are queer never enters into the picture. Unlike a lot of films that make the point of the film about being LGBT, What Keeps You Alive just rolls with this relationship. Historically, horror movies about LGBT characters often puts the focus on their sexuality. Think about the repressed sexuality as a catalyst for horror in High Tension and the subtext of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2.  Or the more outward homophobia represented in the body horror of Closet Monster. And while it can be a powerful metaphor, it's become kind of trite; a trope that takes the easy route of expressing queerness.

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So it's refreshing that the horror of What Keeps You Alive is never reduced to one of internalized homophobia or external hatred by others. It's simply a tale about two people and their relationship. In that regard, the questions it asks about marriage are often uncomfortable.  I don't know Miniham or his life, but Jules has a very poignant monologue that is too raw not to be drawn from a very real place and put the memories of my own brief romance in stark relief:

"Love happened slowly for me. And then all at once. You start to notice all the little things. The good. And The bad. The way the blink a lot when they think hard. The way they laugh at jokes that aren't funny. And all the little nuances that get under your skin. Like they way they shower for too long or hug the blankets at night. But it's the way they see the world differently than you that really draws you in. And even though...even though you can never really know what's going on inside their head...I mean, really know what's going on inside...you take the leap anyway and you hope for the best...and you just pray you don't get the worst."

The way this monologue breaks down what a relationship really is, is kind of frightening, isn't it? When you think about it, you are taking the ultimate gamble whenever you allow yourself to fall in love. You can think that you completely understand the other person and what's going on inside their head. Trust the other person to take care of your fragile heart. You come into the relationship with a certain perspective, built by your own history, and somehow you try to make it work with a person that, try as you might, you'll never truly know. It's a constant leap of faith.

You just hope that the other person will catch you as you fall.