Queer horror, queer villains, and What Keeps You Alive

One of 2018’s most highly praised independent horror outings, What Keeps You Alive was the brainchild of Colin Minihan, who wrote and directed the film. His partner Britney Allen played the story’s protagonist Jules as well as composing the soundtrack while actor Hannah Emily Anderson rounded out the incredibly small central cast as Jules’ murderous wife Jackie. The film was initially written about a heterosexual couple only to be changed to a lesbian couple at the last minute due to outside factors, and thus, almost by accident, gave LGBTQIA+ viewers one of the most prominent queer horror antagonists not just that year, but ever.

Image courtesy: IFC Midnight

The story begins with Jackie and Jules arriving at Jackie’s father’s old cabin, celebrating their one-year wedding anniversary. Jules chats with the neighbors, discovering that Jackie has hidden multiple important things from her, for instance, the fact that she also may have played a major role in a friend’s death in her childhood. Jackie tearfully explains these things away only to viciously attack Jules by shoving her off a cliff, which she barely survives. The film becomes an extended game of cat and mouse as Jules desperately tries to escape with her life.

Casting and gender changes made at the last minute before filming began may have occurred out of necessity, but they are what gave us the most interesting parts of the film. The creators have talked in interviews about how introducing a queer woman in place of the male antagonist helped to normalize the queerness of the characters. Outside of some minor shifts, the story focuses very little on the gender dynamics between the main characters. The sense of presumed equality in their relationship only to have it so brutally snatched away is part of what leaves Jules scrambling to regain her equilibrium.

Minihan noted that he wanted to be aware of the possible pratfalls of a straight man directing a film with lesbian characters, and seemed pleased to have not overly sexualized them. It’s true that the one sex scene of the film is brief, and cut short by an outside interruption. It goes unfulfilled and serves as our first notice that something is amiss in this relationship. Later, when Jules flashes back on an intimate moment between herself and Jackie, the emphasis is on the tenderness she had believed existed between them rather than anything more salacious.

queer horror film What Keeps You Alive
Image courtesy: IFC Midnight

Still, simply inserting queer characters where once there were straight characters isn’t an action that can have no effect on the story as the context of how they move in the world necessarily changes. Allen acknowledged in the same interview that the film itself changes context when it becomes a story about lesbians, noting that before Jules was a woman struggling against a stronger, more dominant partner. In the finished product, she is the more dominant one in the relationship, and Jackie’s betrayal sends her struggling not just to survive, but to regain her sense of self. There are multiple nods to this seemingly minor character change, such as when the two go for some shooting practice and Jules chides Jackie for holding the gun “wrong.” Jackie doesn’t respond at all, and shoots several times, revealing herself to be a crack shot. Jules is impressed and a little scared. Though the film doesn’t have quite enough time to fully explore these moments, they are still there, scattered throughout the script.

The idea of someone using their grasp of the complexities of queer identity to manipulate and gaslight their partner is beyond chilling, and for many queer people who have lived through abusive relationships, it is unfortunately, reflective of traumatic lived experiences.

In the end, the seemingly slight shifts that were made to accommodate two women in a queer relationship as opposed to a man and a woman in a cishet relationship are some of the most chilling parts of the film. For instance, in the scene where Jules realizes that Jackie was born under a completely different name, we see that Jules is hurt that Jackie had never told her this, but we suspect by Jules’ response that the act of Jackie lying must have prior precedence. Without confirmation in the dialogue, we nevertheless get the feeling, through Jules’ weary response, that this is not the first time Jackie has been dishonest or misleading. Jackie, still fully planning to murder her wife within a few hours’ time, tearfully confesses that she changed her name when she came out because her old name no longer suited her new, queer identity. Jules empathizes and forgives her, but as a queer audience member, the idea of someone using their grasp of the complexities of queer identity to manipulate and gaslight their partner is beyond chilling, and for many queer people who have lived through abusive relationships, it is unfortunately, reflective of traumatic lived experiences.

Image courtesy: IFC Midnight

What Keeps You Alive is a great horror film that uses the visual perspective of its characters to paint a more unnerving picture than the script on its own would grant. While there have been endless stories of husbands terrorizing their wives, there’s been significantly less consideration of violent queer couplings. This story would have been scary in any context, but placing Jackie in the position of utilizing the complexity of queer identity in a way that distracts from her prolonged manipulation of Jules makes it all the more terrifying.

There are a number of questions about Jackie that arise throughout the film that couldn’t be easily answered within its running time, but What Keeps You Alive succeeds in not justifying her actions by attempting to sympathize with her story. Memorably, when Jules tries to grill her about her childhood and what made her this way, Jackie shrugs, “It’s nature. Not nurture.” This is not the emotionally satisfying answer we might hope for, but by granting Jackie a cold, emotionless exterior that defies empathy, What Keeps You Alive gave us one of our generation’s great irredeemable queer villains, regardless of whether or not this was fully intentional from the start.

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