On the surface, What Keeps You Alive (2018) and Honeymoon (2014) don’t have much in common. One film includes a human monster determined to kill her partner for insurance money. The other features aliens that overtake one half of a couple. Yet, both films deal with the terror that our partners may not be who we think they are. Though each film addresses this subject differently, they explore the same fear and use a rural setting to do so.
What Keeps You Alive and the Threat From Within
Written and directed by Colin Minihan, What Keeps You Alive features a lesbian couple, Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and Jules (Brittany Allen), who visit majestic Canadian mountains and a still lake to celebrate their one-year anniversary.
Within the first 20 minutes, the film’s direction is unclear. It seems likely, given the setting, that the threat will come from the outside, perhaps a slasher. Yet, we’re soon clued in that Jackie isn’t quite who she says she is. One of her childhood friends, Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), knocks on the cabin door when she sees lights on. She finds it odd because the cabin has been dormant. She calls Jackie by a different name. When Jules overhears this, she later questions Jackie about it. Jackie says that she changed her name when she came out. Yet, the story doesn’t quite sit right, not to Jules and not to the viewer.
Soon after, the movie takes an abrupt turn. From there, it’s clear that the threat comes from within, from Jackie. Yet, before this jarring turn, there are additional clues that Jackie masks her identity. When she takes Jules into the woods to target shoot, Jules is stunned by her partner’s sure-fire aim. Jackie knocks down can after can propped upon a log. This is a side of Jackie that Jules has never witnessed.
They also have a conversation at night about hunting, specifically how Jackie’s dad once wanted her to kill a bear. The bear didn’t die initially, and Jackie had to watch it suffer. When Jules questions this, Jackie says they ate every piece of meat from that bear for a month. This unnerving, dialogue-heavy scene warrants the title of the film and the idea of survival and suffering that the film toys with, especially once Jules becomes prey and Jackie spends much of the film’s second half hunting her.
Yet, it’s not the idea of survival and running from a hunter in the woods that’s terrifying. It’s the idea that our significant other isn’t who they say they are. That’s the horror that really drives the film. Anderson’s performance, specifically her ability to laugh maniacally one minute, and then stare stone-faced at Jules another minute is both spell-binding and nerve-jangling. This is shown best during a scene in which Sarah and her partner, Daniel (Joey Klein), come over for dinner after Jules pleads with them to do so as a means to prolong her life. Jackie manages to play a warm and gracious host, before joking with Daniel that she’s a psychopath. The bloody outcome of that dinner party is one of the film’s highlights.
Additionally, though not overly gory, what the film does with violence is effective, including a close-up of Jules stitching her wounds together. Near the conclusion, Jackie leaves a pair of pliers on the table. She tells Jules that she’s going to use them to rip out the stitches so an autopsy makes it looks like she accidently fell off a cliff. Again, like the bear scene, it’s the dialogue that’s unsettling. We never see what’s mentioned actually happen, but Jackie’s sadistic mode of delivery is nightmare fuel.
Yet, there is still some part of Jules that wants to believe the person she loved still exists. It’s why so many scenes feature close-ups of her face, looking wide-eyed at her partner, shaking her head in disbelief. It’s also another reason the film works so well. The life that Jules thought she had crashes. It’s also why taking up arms against Jackie is such a tough choice. She knows staying alive means she has to wield a knife or rifle against her supposed partner.
What Keeps You Alive’s cinematography enhances the danger and threat of the relationship, best shown through the enormous lake and wide shots of the mountains that look like they could swallow Jules at any moment. The dark blue tones have a similar effect. If Jules doesn’t get out of the relationship, and specifically out of that rural setting, it will kill her. If she fails to acknowledge that the relationship was built on lies, she won’t survive.
The ‘Other’ That You Married in Honeymoon
The threat in What Keeps You Alive that comes from within a relationship warrants some comparison to Honeymoon, directed by Leigh Janiak. Though Honeymoon contains supernatural elements, or perhaps an alien presence, there is a similar premise at work. We don’t really know everything about the one we love. Like What Keeps You Alive, Honeymoon focuses on a couple on a rural get-a-way, isolated from their day to day lives, with the intention of focusing on each other. Newlyweds Paul (Harry Treadaway) and Bea (Rose Leslie) escape to a cabin, and from there, their relationship dissolves.
The film’s opening minutes feature a wedding video that the two made, reminiscing about their first date and lives together. At one point, Bea says gleefully, “I’m now a wife.” This footage is juxtaposed with their long ride to a cabin in wooded Canada for what should be a romantic honeymoon. Yet, it’s the isolation that worsens the relationship, as they find out how much they don’t know about each other.
Additionally, there’s something alien about the setting for Bea and Paul. On their first night, she says, “It’s dark and scary out there.” He says, “It’s dark and scary in here.” The isolation forces them to really examine their relationship, without the distractions of Brooklyn.
One of the biggest issues they face is whether or not they want kids. It’s brought up awkwardly during their first morning together when Paul talks about Bea “resting her womb.” Based on her reaction, it’s clear they’ve never had the discussion and she may not be as open to children as he is. Yet, without the distractions of the city, they’re forced to confront it and their different needs, aspects of each other that were previously unknown.
To add, there is a scene pertaining to hunting and survival that draws a comparison to Jackie’s discussion over killing a bear in What Keeps You Alive. Stunned to find a bear hanging from the cabin wall, Paul questions Bea about what type of person would kill an animal and display it. He then asks her if she’s ever killed anything, and she confesses that she used to kill frogs to use for bait. He’s dismayed by this.
Later in the film, he jokes about killing and eating a frog and she’s just as troubled by the thought of him taking life. In both films, the isolation forces the partners to learn tidbits about each other previously unknown. The newfound knowledge makes them uncomfortable.
Slowly, Paul starts questioning Bea’s behavior and nearly every aspect of their relationship, including what he remembers, such as their first date and how he proposed. It gets to the point where he ties her to a bed and interrogates her. He says, “Where is my wife? My wife tells the truth.” She becomes something alien and foreign to him, just as Jackie becomes something else entirely to Jules.
Honeymoon uses an actual alien presence to make Bea totally unfamiliar to Paul. What Keeps You Alive doesn’t do this, but Jackie becomes just as foreign to Jules. She doesn’t need to be possessed by an alien life form. She’s terrifying enough while wielding a gun, lying, and putting on a mask of nicety when she needs to. That said, Julies is a victim throughout What Keeps You Alive. In Honeymoon, it becomes increasingly difficult to side with Paul, especially when he ties his wife to the bed and refuses to believe anything she says.
Who Have We Married?
Honeymoon mostly explores Bea and Paul’s relationship through dialogue, specifically what each of them thinks they remember about certain moments that they shared together. It’s effective in showing how they’re drifting apart and how they don’t understand everything about each other. Even their memories of important moments don’t align.
What Keeps You Alive relies more on flashbacks and sprinkles them throughout the film. There are several cuts showing Jules and Jackie intimate together and close-ups of Jules’ smiling face. This is contrasted with the present, where Jules has to take up a knife or a gun to defend herself against a person who becomes something totally life-threatening.
The idea we don’t fully know the one we love, even if we think we do, is a horrifying premise. Both films use this effectively. They also utilize a rural setting to enhance a sense of isolation and entrapment within a relationship.
Jules must escape the setting in order to survive. Paul eventually realizes the threat he faces, stemming from the location and something alien in the woods. However, it could be argued that his actions, specifically his growing interrogation of Bea, are the real danger. Both films ask, how well do we really know the person we claim to love?
Brian Fanelli is a poet and educator who also enjoys writing about the horror genre. His work has been published in The LA Times, World Literature Today, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Horror Homeroom, and elsewhere. On weekends, he enjoys going to the local drive-in theater with his wife or curling up on the couch, and binge-watching movies with their cat, Giselle.