What Keeps You Alive (2018)

Full disclosure, I was waiting to write this until I got copy done on Elizabeth Harvest so that I could link both that film and this one as having a connection to the Bluebeard fairytale (uh, spoiler alert, and also spoilers throughout), but as it turns out, Britnee already did a very positive write-up of that film a couple of years back, so I don’t have to! We are in agreement: Elizabeth Harvest is great! 

Also great is the modernized, queer update What Keeps You Alive! Hannah Emily Anderson stars as Jackie, opposite Brittany Allen as Jules. The film follows the two of them to a remote lake house for a retreat for the couple’s one year wedding anniversary. Things feel a little “off” right from the outset, but no more so than you would expect from any film that follows a couple going to a “home” that looms large in the childhood of only one of them. Their diametric idiosyncrasies (including Jules’s fondness for metal music, which her wife hates) also contribute to the willingness to dismiss any awkwardness as simply a matter of character. This pervasive strangeness continues when across-the-lake neighbor Sarah (Martha MacIsaac) visits the rarely-occupied property out of neighborly concern and recognizes one of the women, calling her by a different name than the one by which we the audience know her. This prompts a tearful story about a childhood accident the following day, which is immediately followed by an attempted murder-via-cliff-push. The killer, assuming victory, practices a tearful phone call to the police while walking back to the lake house, revealing a deep and abiding sociopathy; elsewhere, her victim, who has miraculously survived, tries to escape. 

I’ll just call them “Bluebeard” and “Survivor” from here on out to keep this straight and to avoid spoiling which of the leads is the killer. I almost went with “Bluebeard” and “Victim,” but make no mistake: Survivor is not a victim. A very tense cat and mouse plays out following this first attempted murder, including some fun swerves that you won’t see coming. For a film that exists almost entirely in a limited locationthe house, the lake, the woodsthe film finds a way to steer into some unexpected stylistic choices. Of particular note is a blacklight murder scene cleanup scored to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14, aka the Moonlight Sonata, and a half-dreamt reunion with a bloodthirsty bear. For a time, Survivor is recaptured by Bluebeard and kept alive for reasons that are justified internally, but really for the sole purpose of giving Bluebeard an actor’s showcase to show off just how quickly she can pivot from character to character, which is great both in concept and execution.

The film has had a pretty mixed reception. It flew under Swampflix’s radar, and we are a bunch with a fairly wide net of niche interests; there are a few of us I would have expected to have caught this film before now, so I’m surprised that it’s managed to get so many negative reviews. Rotten Tomatoes is an imperfect barometer even at the best of times, but this is one of those movies with a really rough critic/audience ratio (82%, 42%), and the number of 1-star ratings on the Google landing page for the film outnumber the 2-5 star ratings combined. The only negative review included in the body of the movie’s Wikipedia page, by Roger Moore of Movie Nation, takes umbrage with the Survivor’s Act III choices. I do understand this criticism; there’s a real bad case of Re-entering the Lion’s Den that functions as a narrative necessity to get Bluebeard and Survivor into the places where they need for the “checkmate” to occur, but which makes no sense as character choices. Ignoring that, however, there’s a really solid, unique action thriller at the core of this one that makes it worth seeking out.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Elizabeth Harvest (2018)

In the age-old folktale of Bluebeard, a well-to-do monster of a man gets into the habit of marrying women only to murder them once they disobey his one rule: do not look behind the forbidden door in his castle. Once his current wife gives into her curiosity and opens the door, she finds that what lies behind it is the corpses of his former wives. Sebastian Gutierrez’s most recent film, Elizabeth Harvest, is essentially the Bluebeard fairytale, but instead of the corpses if multiple dead wives, the room is filled with clones of one wife. It’s just as crazy as it sounds.

Henry (Ciarán Hinds), a seemingly innocent scientist, brings his new bride, Elizabeth (Abbey Lee), to his huge, mysterious, and obnoxiously clean home in the middle of the woods. The house is a mix of the glass house in the movie The Glass House and the Arboria Institute in Beyond the Black Rainbow, so it was both fascinating and terrifying. There are two caretakers in the home: Claire (Carla Gugino), a mysterious, quiet woman with an obvious connection to Henry, and Oliver (Matthew Beard), a young, blind man that mostly keeps to himself. The two add to the unwelcome feeling of the already spooky setting. As in the Bluebeard tale, Henry gives Elizabeth free reign of the home and all the luxuries that comes with it, but she is forbidden from entering one room. While Henry is away, Elizabeth enters the forbidden room only to find pods with clones of herself. Once Henry discovers what Elizabeth has done, the film shifts away from Bluebeard and becomes something entirely different.

Gutierrez throws in some impressive visual effects at all the right moments. There are a couple of scenes with split screens that focus on what different characters are doing in different parts of the home during highly intense moments, which I absolutely loved. There’s also lots of bold color and high fashion throughout the film, especially with Elizabeth. She has vibrant red hair, piercing blue eyes, and wears lots of haute couture. Watching her walk through different rooms in the home was like flipping through the pages of Vogue for a “Sci-Fi Meets High Fashion” issue. The film comes very close to being one of those style over substance works, but the uniqueness and intensity of the plot keeps it balanced.

Elizabeth Harvest is one of the most visually stunning films that I’ve seen come out this year. I love that it’s a très chic twist on the Bluebeard tale with just enough gore and mystery to satisfy the sci-fi horror nerd in us all.

-Britnee Lombas