The Film: The Keep (1983)

The Principals: Michael Mann (writer/director) F. Paul Wilson (novel)
Jürgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn, Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellen, Alberta Watson, Robert Prosky.

The Premise: During WWII, a Captain in the German Army (Prochnow) is sent to occupy a bumpkin village in Romania in order to control a mountain pass. Despite the warnings of the locals, the Captain sets up quarters within the village’s monolithic citadel (the titular Keep), and soon his men are dying under bizarre circumstances. A detachment of Einsatzkommandos, lead by Gabriel Byrne, is dispatched to quell what is believed to be partisan activity, but the killings continue and are clearly of supernatural origin (clear to everyone but Byrne). In order to stop Byrne from executing more villagers, the village’s priest (Prosky) convinces the Nazis to free a Jewish scholar (McKellen) and his daughter (Watson) from a concentration camp in the hopes that he can provide some answers. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger (Glenn) has been psychically alerted of the evil force the Nazis have unwittingly released in the Keep, and begins a hurried journey for the Romanian village… accompanied by a bizarre weapon. Shit gets real crazy when McKellen finally comes face to face with the Keep’s evil entity, Radu Molasar (Jabba the Hutt’s man servant, Michael Carter).

Is It Good: Depends on your definition of “good.” The short answer is no, the movie is a preposterous mess. Mann’s original cut of the film was 200 minutes long, which offers some explanation for why the 96 minute theatrical cut feels like a highlight reel, especially once we cross the midway point. The film skips and jumps through its story, which is too bad, because The Keep‘s story is bonkers in all the right ways. I would imagine if you have read F. Paul Wilson’s original novel it may be easier to glean satisfaction here, although possibly not. Wilson himself said of the film: “Visually intriguing, but otherwise utterly incomprehensible.”

“Visually intriguing” indeed. This is Miami Vice era Mann, and The Keep has a deliciously dated look; like a high end early MTV music video, the film is bursting with blinding backlights, smoke machines, and enough blue gels to make James Cameron nut in his pants. The set design and art direction is truly epic, and most of the FX work holds up well. The scene in which two greedy Nazi guards accidentally free Molasar is quite iconic, and the smoke effect used to represent the demon-god before Michael Carter shows up (in an enjoyably goofy practical muscle suit with glowing red eyes) is interesting as well.

While Mann’s visual aesthetics may be deliciously dated, I can’t say the same for 80’s stalwart Tangerine Dreams’ synth-tastic score, which brought me to near giggles at times. If ever there was a movie that begged for a big Gothic orchestral score, it was The Keep. Oh, the 80’s.

I have to imagine the story played much better in Mann’s 200 minute cut, but pitiless studio editing doesn’t help explain the film’s b-movie acting style. If this was the only film you’d seen McKellen in you’d think the man was a hack. Most distressing though is Robert Prosky, whom I adore from Christine, Broadcast News, and Hill Street Blues reruns, who always seems like he is on the verge of experimenting with an accent, and is given a lot of corny dialogue to ham around with. Most of the acting is strangely iffy (considering the caliber of talent). Only Jürgen Prochnow comes off looking good. Frankly the entire movie seems at a loss for accents. Prochnow is our introduction to the Germans. He has a German accent. Then Byrne shows up with his steely brogue. Some of the Romanians have British accents. Some American. And McKellen is sort of caught somewhere between a new accent and his own. Not sure what Mann’s idea was here.

Is It Worth A Look: Yes. Despite that wave of negativity, The Keep scores a lot of points from me for being interesting. Boring at times and incomprehensible at others, yes, but interesting. Its pedigree alone makes it alluring, though I think the selling point here is Mann jerking off his visual aspirations amongst some killer sets. The story – in particular any moment with Glenn being sexy or displaying his eye-flashing super powers – will likely elicit laughs from you. The character of Molasar gave off some strong Clive Barker vibes (both Barker and Wilson are admitted Lovecraftians, so that makes sense), and is quite interesting at first, before the film gets smothered by its mangled editing. This is that odd kind of film that you probably won’t like, but will nonetheless be glad you watched. If you’re like me, that is.

The film did make me interested to read Wilson’s book, which is the first installment in his Adversary Cycle.

Random Anecdote: Despite the fact that I find it too ridiculous to enjoy, Tangerine Dreams’ score developed a cult following over the years, resulting in the soundtrack finally be released on CD in 1997 – though only three of the album’s sixteen tracks actually appeared in the film.