Sydney Film Festival Review: Colin Minihan overindulges in tension with What Keeps You Alive (Canada, 2018)

Not truly knowing your significant other post-marriage must be a terrifying thought, and it’s one that grounds Colin Minihan‘s What Keeps You Alive in a genuinely frightening premise. Lock that idea up and throw it into a cliche cabin-in-the-woods scenario and you have yourself a fun horror film that’s intriguing and entertaining, if not a bit drawn out and tedious.

Those most familiar with Minihan’s name from cult-followed found footage classic Grave Encounters may be a bit thrown off here. He slips into something much more conventional, although his previous works have obviously sharpened his skills when it comes to making the most of whatever space he can. The way in which he uses the setting is admirable, darting through the woods to build suspense, or patiently zooming out from the isolated cabin to lift the dreadful, ominous feeling that this innocent couple drama will turn bloody anytime soon. A sense of realism is what keeps the film grounded, slowly twirling around Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and her wife Jules (Brittany Allen) as they spend their alone time celebrating their anniversary in an impeccably detailed cabin that supposedly belonged to Jackie’s grandfather.

The cracks are slowly worked in. Jackie picks up a guitar and hypnotically sings about a demon inside her, much to Jules’ concern. Sarah, a neighbour (Martha MacIsaac) curious as to why the cabin is occupied all of the sudden, pops by from across the lake and reveals that Jackie’s real name is Megan. There’s a disconnect between what Jackie is now sharing about her own childhood and how guarded she has been about her family up until that point. And perhaps most alarming, Jackie has never mentioned the tragic death of a childhood friend, mentioned by Sarah with the implication that Jules’ now increasingly suspect wife was somehow involved.

Jules barely has enough time to piece things together as she’s violently shoved off a cliff to certain death. She survives – there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise – and hence begins a well-executed game of cat-and-mouse that is just bursting with tension thanks to Minihan’s choices, bringing life to an otherwise bland plot that has been done to death in this genre. With survival now the focal point, there’s some fantastic, breath-taking sequences scattered throughout, with the clear frontrunner being an exciting row-boat chase on the exhaustively large lake, shot with a style and finesse by cinematographer David Schuurman .

Perhaps the film’s biggest strength is the obvious affection Minihan has for the handful of characters, contrasted with the biggest flaw in Grave Encounters: being that the small crew were mere faces in the wider context of a haunted house. It clearly strengthens things here, despite that sharpness in the script tragically blunted by an overindulgence towards the end. The film just doesn’t end where it should, instead continuing to undo the entire set-up for the sake of an ill-advised “gotcha” moment. It’s disappointing and unfortunately sours much of the good that came before it.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

What Keeps You Alive screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Head HERE for more details.