I remember watching a clip from Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut film Play Misty for Me as a part of Bravo’s 100 Scariest Movie Moments. In a key scene, we see Eastwood laying there on his bed. His eyes are closed, he is facing up, and he is vulnerable. As he opens his eyes, he sees a crazed and betrayed Evelyn (Jessica Walter) standing over him. She is making the ultimate commitment why Clint’s character of Dave is wondering what is driving her to these actions. Evelyn thrusts a knife manically down into a pillow barely missing him. As a viewer, we understand why she is doing this to Dave but really do we understand her mindset to do this? Just like any of the great antagonists, we work hard to find out what their motives and mindset are. In the end as we look deep, we realize they are self-reflective pushed to these unspeakable actions. Following his acclaimed storytelling perspective on the undead sub-genre of horror with It Stains the Sands Red, comes the latest feature from talented filmmaker Colin Miniham with What Keeps You Alive now in theaters and on VOD through IFC Midnight. Again, taking a page out of the legacy of damaged and dangerous antagonists, Miniham, crew, and the talented pair performers Hannah Emily Jackson (Jackie) and Brittany Allen (Jules) create an uber tense tale of predator and prey.
Celebrating an anniversary, Jackie and Jules are heading to a cabin where Jackie grew up. Jules feels something is not sitting right about Jackie, which we soon fund out the horror of what lies beneath. Using horror framework from the undead sub-genre in It Stains the Sands Red and now with the slasher framework in What Keeps You Alive, Miniham understands what we know and love as fans but twists it. Overall, this film succeeds on many levels. First, the pace of this film is very clever and helps to fully realize the potential of this film. Why I do not agree with the Revenge type fall from grace and then the resurrection that we see in the first act of the film with Jules, Miniham never allows you to become disengaged with long winding scenes even if scenes like the fall shove the film forward. Miniham keeps things moving along with beats that seem to not slow the film but instead moves the story forward. Second, like It Stains the Sands Red, Miniham and DP David Shuurman know how to paint the canvas for this film with the woods instead of the desert. Both locations are vast and feel at times like you could be lost forever which is utilized wonderfully as ways to increase the tension and conflict. Miniham and Shuurman create the same effect on more a smaller scale with this film yet create one of many forms of symbolism that show you can not escape your situation or conflict no matter how much you run to a safe place. Third, the casting for these characters is incredible. Anderson and Allen primarily hold the screen. They are powerful, vulnerable, and captivating. During the 98-minute run time, Miniham challenges you to put yourself in their shoes on many levels. The idea of finding love, the betrayal, and the darkness of revenge for your partners actions. As a viewer, you run the emotional spectrum with them. You get invigorated with what they are willing to do and try to understand the why after they have crossed that line. The co-leads understand their characters deeply and both share the screen with a force that has depth and substance unlike other similar films put out recently. The remaining cast are their as support and go just as quickly but not without an emotional impact.
In an era of empowering female driven stories, What Keeps You Alive is a smarter and a step above most films that relies heavily on the viewer’s emotion to control their perspective and align them with what they think they should think. What Keeps You Alive, does not. A revenge theme at the core of this film, Miniham has become a creator who knows how to craft strong female characters that have an edge but also depth no matter what side of the fence they sit on or how much damage they have. He took a damaged woman and created a strong protagonist that as a viewer I could get behind. With Miniham, he is smart, and these films feel personal, almost a coping. With It Stains the Sands Red, Miniham no doubt took some deep-seated fear that had been chasing him and cultivated it on a large desert canvas. With this film, perhaps relationships? No matter, he lets the characters grow through conflict on the screen before our eyes.
As I stated earlier, I felt that the transitional attempt to kill Jules early in the film was a bit much and really drastic. However, I understand why Miniham was doing it and respect that force and reality. He wants to set things in a crazed motion, keeping you on edge. He wants the extreme of showing that finality to one side of their relationship and a painful birth of another. With that aside, I loved the hunt in this film. Miniham uses the woods to perfection, giving it a feel and making it almost a character. Jackie especially is a force that you love to hate but is very frightening. The score is brilliant by Allen. It was a wise move to have one of your leads cultivate a score. It is coming from inside her and reflects the conflict, struggle, emotion, and horror of this story. The sound work is good, but the voices are a bit low at times which distracts. The film effectively uses very naturally lighting to create a mood that rides the ever-shifting pace. One of the memorable scenes is Jackie cleaning up after revealing herself to those across the lake. One of films most frightening, the use of black light, framing, score, and edit come together so well and create the dangerous portrait of who Jackie has been all along.
Why this film does not reinvent the wheel and pulls from survivalist horror hybrids throughout the decades, Miniham lays his fingerprint down just as he did with It Stains
the Sands Red. It is so wise to use to female leads and to break that stereotype we see in many survival films. Like the woman’s period which helps to keep the undead on her heels in It Stains the Sands Red, this film also has a couple of plot devices that are unique and executed well. The film offers well placed symbolism that not adds a layer but is visually smart. This story and these characters go through the Miniham formula and come out engaging with Miniham pushing the conflict of relationships in all areas which we have all been there before (but hopefully not to Jackie’s level). It makes us question, ‘Can we trust the ones we love, do we even really know them at all,’ which is a core fear that we can connect to. In the end, character depth, story substance, crafted tension, and a satisfying twist makes What Keeps You Alive, is one of the best this year and further shows Miniham as a clever film making mind.