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Film Review: The Keep (1983)

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“Romania, 1942, a detachment of the German Army is sent to guard a mysterious Romanian citadel located on a strategic mountain pass. When soldiers begin to be mysteriously murdered, the SS arrives to deal with what is thought to be partisan activity. What the SS finds, however, is an evil force trapped within The Keep and a force which will do anything in order to escape.” (courtesy IMDB)

He created Miami Vice (2006), introduced us to Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter (1986), made Russell Crowe The Insider (1999), and even got a reasonable performance out of Tom Cruise in Collateral (2004). But for many film-goers, director Michael Mann‘s hypnotic, incomprehensible mythic fantasy/World War II monster movie The Keep (1983) remains his most startling work to date. Michael Mann’s second feature, following the lush urban Noir film Thief (1981), was an ambitious attempt to fashion an arthouse horror film, the result being an eloquently haunting but ultimately confusing fantasy that was so castigated by critics and audiences on initial release, that Mann fled to television to create Miami Vice. But is it really that bad?

Nazi troops assigned to guard a pass in the Carpathian Alps of Romania disobey the warnings of an old caretaker (W. Morgan Sheppard) to take up residence in the titular fortress – an enormous Gothic structure adorned with silver crosses – whose design suggests it wasn’t built to keep something out, but to keep something in. When a pair of greedy soldiers pry one of the crosses from the wall all hell breaks loose. With his troops around him being picked off one-by-one, the concerned Captain (Jurgen Prochnow) requests relocation, only to incite the wrath of his superior officer (Gabriel Byrne), who drags in an ailing Jewish professor (Ian McKellan) and his daughter (Alberta Watson) to find out what is killing his men. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger with glowing eyes (Scott Glen) is making a beeline for The Keep for some sort of ultimate showdown between Good and Evil…or something like that…

Loosely adapted from author F. Paul Wilson‘s superbly sinister novel (who has since written several sequels), Mann’s screenplay changes the vampire antagonist of the book into some indeterminate evil being that, when finally revealed, winds up being just a guy in a black rubber suit with a booming voice and a mouthful of LEDs. Moreover, the film’s musings on the nature of said Evil and its enigmatic adversary (Glenn) is so obscure that even those who have read the novel are likely to share in the bewilderment. The final freeze on Alberta Watson’s “WTF?” expression succinctly sums up Mann’s flawed but frequently fabulous vision.

To his credit, Mann effectively drowns the film’s inconsistencies in dreamy visuals, billowing fog, MTV ambiance and a haunting but sometimes overwhelming score from European synthesiser kings Tangerine Dream, but never quite delivers the goods – the final destruction of the Nazis occurs off-screen, and the special effects are rather clunky, to say the least. However, the collaboration with cinematographer Alex Thomson, he frequently strikes gold: A terrific opening shot of the German convoy’s slow-motion approach to the village as Tangerine Dream count the beat; a seemingly endless tracking shot as a pair of Nazis stare into the deep dark abyss of The Keep’s interior; and an impressive wide-shot of McKellan in conversation with the demon.

The film’s choppy nature and baffling plot twists (Watson is reluctant to share her room with the brooding stranger, but within minutes they are shagging) suggest there might be another reel of film gathering dust in Mann’s attic. Indeed, various television prints have since emerged containing additional footage and alternate endings. With this, and its incredible cast in mind, The Keep is a DVD dream waiting to awaken. Given that Mann isn’t adverse to re-cutting his work, perhaps now is the time for a definitive two-hour directors cut of this misunderstood masterpiece.

Perhaps what is called for is a remake – or should I say a new, more faithful adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s original novel. After all, Wilson himself expressed distaste for Mann’s version publicly, and once told me that the film is, “Visually intriguing, but otherwise utterly incomprehensible.” And it’s on that note, whether you like it or not, that I’ll announce my return next week with another bargain-basement B-grader to thrill you, chill you, and fill you with swill for…Horror News! Toodles!

The Keep (1983)

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