An advantage small-scale genre films often have over bigger-budget pictures is that they are more often watched by audiences who don’t know anything going in – when browsing the horror/thriller section on the streaming service of your choice, or settling down to the fifth film of the day at FrightFest – except loosely that it’s not going to be an indie relationships drama or a knockabout comedy. Writer-director Colin Minihin’s film – which reunites him with Brittany Allen, the star of his unusual zombie apocalypse drama It Stains the Sands Red – works best if you let it surprise you … so maybe come back to the review after you’ve seen it.
In the first act, Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Allen) celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary by driving deep into the Canadian woods where Jackie has inherited a huge rambling cabin on a lake. It’s not the first or the last film at FrightFest which has opened with people driving to a lake house – a set-up that seems to be the 21st century horror film’s version of ‘once upon a time …’ At this point, What Keeps You Alive could turn out to be a home invasion movie, a Bigfoot encounter, a ghost from the lake, a stalker cult drama, or a brush with aliens in the woods – all of which would be plausible from the versatile Minihin (the Grave Encounters film, Extraterrestrial), and most of which could spin off from ominous hints we get between the black and white flashback cuddles and anecdotes about Jackie’s hunting nut Dad (who tought her only to kill ‘what keeps you alive’). A vehicle drives up to the cabin after dark, interrupting a tender moment, and a hoodie-sporting stranger approaches the porch … only to be revealed as an old friend (Martha MacIsaac) who knows Jackie by a different name (‘Megan’) and is spooked by nocturnal activity at the cabin. Jackie, a musical prodigy, strums an eerie folk song about demons (evoking Let’s Scare Jessica to Death) – though her usual bickering with Jules is over heavy metal versus classical (both later figure in set-pieces).
A real stunner of a reversal comes on a hike the next day – with a character turning on a dime, and the unravelling of a conspiracy plot and some straight ahead sociopathy. The anniversary turns into a battle of wits between suddenly, bloodily estranged partners and Minihin perhaps shifts the balance of power in the big cabin two or three too many times, literally prolonging the agony. Anderson, the eccentric assistant coroner in Jigsaw, has the more mercurial role, and seems to most relish the stretches where she becomes a would-be cold-blooded killer, while Allen does most of the suffering and scheming, also showing a streak of survivalist grit when the worst comes. With a tiny cast – the neighbour has a husband (Joey Klein) – and a tight little story, the film has time to show off a bit … a chase across the lake on rowing boats, a post-murder cleanup session where the killer uses blacklight to illuminate in hallucinogenic purple the bloodstains she wants to wash away, a fight in the attic conveyed by the camera panning through the room below as the light fittings are disturbed, several near monologues that could count as showreel exercises, and a spot-on punchline.