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Schlock & Awe: THE KEEP

The name Michael Mann is synonymous with gritty urban sprawl, fast-paced action, and films about the criminal underbelly; so of course that’s who you want for your supernatural horror flick set in WWII Romania. Right? That makes sense. In the early ’80s, though, the director hadn’t quite cemented himself in any particular genre, so going completely in another direction seemed not so far-fetched. He followed his debut film, the impressive 1981 crime film Thief, with his most atypical film, trading in his car chases and jewel heists for Nazis and demons for 1983’s The Keep. It’s an odd little movie that tried to be (and probably should have been) a lot bigger. As pretty as the cinematography and design are, it suffers from that most destructive of film maladies: not making a lick of sense.

Based on a novel of the same name by F. Paul Wilson, The Keep has lofty aspirations and a pretty low yield. It’s such a weird movie to watch. The accents are strange, the music is strange, and the pacing is strange; perhaps the only thing decent about it is the look of it. So, put it on mute, I guess. When watching it, I felt like I must have fallen asleep a couple of times, because I couldn’t have seen the entire thing and be this lost. Was the whole thing a dream? A quick pinch to my arm let me know that I was a) still awake, and b) still sunburned. Ow. In doing research, the book sounds like it is very good, making The Keep one of the few films to ever make me wish I was reading.

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During the Second World War, a small battalion of German soldiers make their way to a tiny village in Romania with an incredibly large citadel built into a mountain. Their task is to hold the pass, and they will occupy the citadel (the titular Keep) as their stronghold. Leading this group is Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), a tough officer who is nevertheless compassionate toward the villagers he’s displacing. While inside the massive keep, he is told by a weird old mystic that they are not to touch any of the crosses that are embedded into the wall. Of course, the first thing some lowly, greedy soldiers do is try to remove a silver cross from the wall. They find that it is attached to a block that leads to a passageway with another cross. When they remove that one, they see a massive, hollow area in the mountain with weird stones and things. An entity comes at them and makes their heads explode. The ’80s were a big decade for things happening to Nazi heads.

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Elsewhere in the world, Scott Glenn exists. When the entity in the keep is disturbed, he wakes up with visual effects light in his eyes. He leaves wherever he is and starts to travel, presumably toward where the story is. Back in Romania, Woermann has called to request his battalion be moved following the mysterious deaths of a handful of other soldiers. This request is turned down in favor of sending Eric Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), an SS officer, and his mobile death squads who begin rounding up villagers and killing them, thinking they are to blame. Woermann is aghast at this; he’s a good Nazi. Because of some strange writing on the walls, Kaempffer is convinced by a local priest to retrieve Jewish scholar Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen… I know) and his daughter from a death camp. More Nazis get killed as the entity begins to manifest itself physically and makes Cuza believe he is a force for good. Then Scott Glenn shows up, boffs Cuza’s daughter, and reveals himself to be the warrior destined to fight this strange, unearthly demon thing.

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Okay, for reals, though: This movie don’t make no sense. It’s rushed, overly complex, and nothing pays off in a satisfactory way. Some of this, though, isn’t Michael Mann’s fault. Apparently, Mann’s first cut of the movie clocked in at about 3 hours and 30 minutes. As the theatrical release version is only 1 hour 36 minutes, it’s safe to say a good amount of Mann’s vision was left on the floor. Scott Glenn’s character is a complete cipher who is totally absent for over half of the film’s running time. He shows up in the town in a hotel room where Cuza’s daughter is staying. He doesn’t leave and she’s weirdly okay with it. In about five minutes, they’re having sex. What? I mean, I get he’s a soldier for the Powers That Be, but I don’t even think James Bond could work that fast, especially without saying really anything. As it sits, McKellen’s character is the protagonist, though even he doesn’t come in until quite a ways in.

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Some of the things ARE Mann’s fault, though, perhaps the most irritating being the soundtrack done by German New Age synth band Tangerine Dream. It’s not written in the Law of Movies that a film’s score can’t be anachronistic, but having plodding keyboard tones behind shots of Gestapo running from a billowing smoke beast is about the weirdest marriage of audio and visual since my sixth grade teacher accidentally put on a David Bowie tape along with a film strip about Sir Walter Raleigh. It’s weird, but Tangerine Dream did the music for Mann’s earlier film, Thief, so it makes a bit of sense. The other thing that’s Mann’s fault is more baffling.

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This movie’s characters are either German or Romanian. The Germans all speak with German accents; fine. The Romanians all speak with flat, California-American accents… Whyyyyy? Is it just so Scott Glenn doesn’t have to try to do an accent? But he’s otherworldly; he could have spoken with his regular voice and it’d have been fine. So you have Irish Gabriel Byrne doing a German accent and English Ian McKellen doing an American accent. Prochnow is the only person whose natural accent actually matches the character he’s playing. It’s very off-putting. It’s like the Nazis invaded Bakersfield.

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Literally, the only thing this movie has going for it are the impressive visuals. Not all the special effects work, but at least the cinematography is pretty stunning. Sadly, they weren’t enough to save the movie. It tanked on its theatrical release, making back only about half its relatively small budget. The book’s author publicly slammed the picture, and Mann himself has all but disowned it and has blocked it from ever getting a DVD release. I’m sure he still wakes up some nights in a cold sweat with dreams about the Nazis and demons movie he made that got the better of him.

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7 comments

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  • Actually, F.Paul Wilson seamlessly enfolded Glaeken and Magda (Eva in the film) into ‘The Adversary Cycle’. This is part of his ‘Secret History of the World’ series, of which the Repairman Jack novels form the primary part.
    I love F. Paul’s books, and I also adore this film. It is it’s quirkiness that gives it a certain charm. I admit that it strays too far from the source material, and that is probably its main problem. Molasar/Rasalom in the book is portrayed more as a vampire type of creature, killing the soldiers and using them to find and remove the source of the power that imprisons him.
    Perhaps because science fiction was so popular at the time, Molasar was reimagined as an ethereal creature. While not accurate to the book, I think they did a stellar job with the makeup effects as Molasar reconstitutes himself layer by layer. Glaeken in turn was altered to become an alter ego of Molasar, almost like polar opposite twins, one utterly evil, and one benevolent, even if he is enigmatic.
    Tangerine Dream’s score for the film is gorgeous. It adds a dreamlike surreal quality to the film. IMHO it does not detract from the film in any way.
    Casting was sublime. Sir Ian McKellen, Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, Robert Prosky, W. Morgan Sheppard, Alberta Watson. You’d have to pay big dollars to get those names together for a film today.
    It saddens me greatly that Michael Mann has blocked the DVD release of this film. It is truly deserving of a full on bells and whistles BluRay release, hopefully gathering together as much of the original cut as possible, and adding behind the scenes material.
    It IS a cult classic. Bootleg copies of the film and soundtracks are highly sought after, even today. There IS a target audience for this film and they would snap a legitimate release up in a heartbeat.

  • Bruce, thanks for the succinct post. Said exactly what I would’ve said. Would love to have the original full Mann version to see how he meant it to be. Because of the movie, I found the book. Never looked back and became an F. Paul Wilson fan for life.

  • I have to agree here that this was one of the movies that defined my childhood. I loved the soundtrack, loved the visuals, I loved the tenderness of the sex scene, and because of it, I have also read the book. I also became more interested in WWII and started researching what happened during the war. It opened my eyes to the atrocities of that war. But more than that, hearing this soundtrack and thinking about Ian McKellan saying “If you are so powerful, you take it out!” brings back thoughts of nostalgia and the power of humankind over evil. Good stuff.

  • A few years ago, Paramount was planning/pushing to release both the theatrical version and the “director’s cut” version on Blu-ray. For unknown reasons, Paramount decided against the release.
    For me, the only good thing about the movie: it introduced me to FPW’s books: specifically “The Adversary Cycle” and the RJ books.