In horror, queer women have always been subject to their own version of the virgin/whore dichotomy: predator or sex object. Colin Minihan’s thriller ‘What Keeps You Alive’ offers not only a burst of fresh air, but hope for a new generation of queer audiences.
As with any type of media depicting specific parts of the human experience, the different iterations of queer stories tend to have patterns to consistently fall back on. From the saccharine-sweet but somewhat unsatisfying love stories where no queer character can seem to do wrong, to the more insidiously negative depictions of queerness as a predatory trait, or simply the token gay, functioning only as an attempt to weakly convince the audience of some diversity of narrative, there are a few tropes that are simply impossible to ignore. Obviously not all cinema conforms to these rules, and films made by queer people are often a whole lot more nuanced than those produced by heterosexual and cisgender filmmakers (at this time of year, lists of excellent queer horror movies float around the internet, and I highly recommend many of them!). However, within the mainstream, each genre seems to have its own interpretation of being LGBT. The romantic-comedy has had the gay best friend. The drama has had the tortured, sometimes homophobic, closeted gay person struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. Horror has the gay man or lesbian as a predator, obsessed with a straight protagonist, often to the point of murder. While all of these tropes are harmful in their own ways, horror is such an inherently political genre with its power to define morality and villainy, that the constant depiction of LGBT characters as predatory is particularly worrying. It’s an understatement to describe it as exhausting.
Against a backdrop of such monotonous and toxic character tropes, Colin Minihan’s 2018 horror-thriller What Keeps You Alive is a jolt of electric. Set deep in the Canadian wilderness, What Keeps You Alive follows Jules and Jackie, a recently married couple spending their anniversary at Jackie’s parents’ secluded holiday-home. As the trip progresses, Jules begins to realise that her wife may not be all she seems to be, as she begins to find out more and more about Jackie’s childhood. After a visit from their only neighbour within several square miles, who calls Jackie by a different name, one thing becomes abundantly clear: Jackie is not who she says she is. Minihan does a masterful job of keeping the tension high, and you can feel on a physical level just how isolated the pair are in both the forest and in their own relationship. Only two other characters feature in the movie (and only on an insignificant level) making this very much a queer movie. I won’t spoil the movie, it is certainly one that deserves to be experienced first-hand and while it’s not an open scare-fest, it is guaranteed to leave you on the edge of your seat. What Keeps You Alive plays with its audiences emotions deftly, with Jules’ visceral fight for survival and glimmers of quickly dashed hope likely to have you screaming at the screen. Minihan’s script does away with gender binaries that might lead you to expect certain things from certain characters and the incredible performances from Brittany Allen as Jules and Hannah Emily Anderson as Jackie are brutally beautiful in a way that stayed with me for days after the movie finished.
On the surface, What Keeps You Alive might appear as a run-of-the-mill, predator-prey story. As much as the specifics of that dynamic are played with through the non-heterosexual elements of the story, it would be easy to dismiss this film as a simple, formulaic premise, with a lesbian couple injected into the narrative (indeed, the original script featured a heterosexual couple, which arguably would have made the film far more conventional), but what makes it feel so fresh is the departure it takes from typical depictions of LGBT people, especially lesbians, in horror. The lives of LGBT people on screen was dictated for decades by the Hays Code, a supposed moral guide for filmmakers to follow which declared that ‘No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin’. Surprise, surprise which groups were most maligned by the guide. While the Hays Code was technically voluntary, many studios looked to it as a guiding influence in the production of film from 1930 to 1966, influencing an entire new generation of filmmakers. While many filmmakers made excellent work subverting the Hays Code, many were left with one of two choices: depict LGBT people sympathetically, only to have their stories end in tragedy so as to avoid condoning their lifestyles, or to depict LGBT people unsympathetically, as villains and predators. The horror genre typically leaned towards unsympathetic portrayals of anything that could even be vaguely associated with LGBT people, including more feminine-presenting men and more masculine-presenting women, hiding queerness in subtext, but nevertheless being perfectly clear regarding who was a hero and who was not. The 1970s brought a new generation of horror, in which lesbians were depicted with the almost exclusive purpose of titillating audiences. The male gaze was all that mattered, and in an era of increasing liberation for queer women, the position of sex object in B-movies is one that reminds us of the progress that is still to be made. Which brings us to today.
In the 21st century, these tropes have become amalgamated, reformed in modern horror. While rare gems like What Keeps You Alive often come along with nuanced lesbian characters, the more common depiction is a deeply concerning one. The predatory lesbian never really disappeared from film. From low-impact horror such as The Roommate (2011) to more sophisticated fare like Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016), the predatory lesbian trope of the Hays Code-era has been fused with the sex object of the 1970s. The vilified queer woman is a focus for the male gaze as much as any final girl character may be, and with even more worrying implications. When an antagonist is both a villain and a sex object, she becomes an object of both condemnation and consumption. While some films, such as Jennifer’s Body (2009) can be interpreted as more subversive attempts at this trope (Megan Fox’s titular succubus character uses her sexuality to destroy the men who would have destroyed her), it’s difficult to not sense the constant aura of male gaze surrounding the film. This is why What Keeps You Alive is so beautifully new. As an antagonist, Jackie defies categorisation. As she says to Jules at one point in the film, ‘It’s nature, not nurture’; queerness is not built into Jackie’s identity as an antagonist any more than it’s built into Jules as the protagonist, it simply is. And while there are erotic moments between the couple, none of it feels designed for the sake of titillation. What Keeps You Alive is a movie that feels refreshing and vital, a terrifying film about the horrible thread between love and violence that we haven’t already seen before. Jules’ sense of hope carries us through the movie: hope in her relationship, hope that she can save her wife from herself, and hope that she can survive. This faint glimmer keeps the movie from dropping into what some describe as torture porn, and instead keeps its audience in a state of agonising for Jules emotionally, as well as physically. Hope is threaded into the very fabric of the film, and personally, from the plot to the wider hope it may provide to queer people for a future in cinema of nuanced, exciting queer characters and stories.
Hi everyone! My name is Molly Adams, and I’d like to thank you for reading my work on GenderTerror. I’m a student and horror writer, currently working on my first graphic novel. If you’d like to discuss this piece or keep up with any of my work, follow me on twitter at @mollywrites_ or read more of my work over on my website.