Review: What Keeps You Alive, Horror as Domestic Drama

One of the highlights from this year’s Cinepocalypse Horror Film Festival was writer/director Colin Minihan’s (What Keeps You Alive, Grave Encounters) latest What Keeps You Alive, the story of a young lesbian couple taking a trip together to visit a family cabin in the woods to celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary. The cabin is where Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson, of the new “Purge” series) spent a great deal of time as a child with her intense, hunting-enthusiast father, while wife Jules (Brittany Allen, of Jigsaw) is there for the isolation and romance of it all, with now real interest in hunting.

But after an unexpected and awkward run-in with a childhood friend of Jackie’s, Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), and her husband (Joey Klein), in which it is revealed that Jackie is using a fake name, the dynamic of the couple changes, and it starts looking a lot like Jackie might not be who she seems to be in many, many ways. What Keeps You Alive is a fantastic metaphor for all relatively new couples and begs the question “How much do we really know about the people in our lives?” Although the film goes deep down a path into somewhere really dark, shocking, and often brutal, the core of the film is this changing nature of their relationship, and how the two women take turns manipulating each other (or trying), sometimes in an effort just to stay alive for a few more hours.

Like many impressive horror films of late, What Keeps You Alive first builds up a profile of this marriage, and then turns into something with actual stakes in which we legitimately care about who lives and dies. Filmmaker Minihan slowly pulls back the layers on Jackie’s younger years to reveal one gut punch after another of how she was raised and her previous misbehaviors, and both leads are particularly strong at changing the personalities of their characters and ramping up the tension through their performances. The violence is sometimes difficult to watch but it absolutely adds to the authenticity of what we’re seeing, and the film becomes the ultimate take on complete betrayal. It works as a horror experience but it also succeeds as a domestic drama, punctuated by blood and pain. Not for everyone, but for those who consider themselves fans of something different in horror, it’s a must see.

The film is playing this weekend at midnight both Friday and Saturday nights at the Music Box Theatre.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.