The Keep (1983)
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Jürgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellen, William Morgan Sheppard, Royston Tickner, Phillip Joseph, Michael Carter
(out of 4)
Michael Mann is known for his stylish crime thrillers (like Heat, Collateral, and Miami Vice) as well as Manhunter, his 1986 adaptation of the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon (Brett Ratner directed the 2002 version). The Keep, his third film as director, shows the kind of atmosphere and camerawork he would later be famous for, with dramatic use of lighting, slow motion shots, and impressive scene composition. Featuring a moody, ambient score from Tangerine Dream, the film is incredibly dreamlike and ethereal, which makes up for its flaws, of which there are many. Inside The Keep is a really good movie – maybe even a masterpiece – but it’s the kind of masterpiece that has been messed with by vandals (ie: studios and editors), so like an old, faded painting, lots of detail is lost. But you can still tell the guy knows how to draw.
The Keep is hard to pin down when talking about genre. It’s part horror, historical fiction, drama, action, and fantasy. It takes place in Romania, 1941, opening with the German war machine rolling through the fog, in a village situated at the Dinu Mountain Pass (a place invented by F. Paul Wilson, writer of the novel on which this film is based). The German Wehrmacht, headed by Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), takes over the citadel/fortress, which is massive and very strange, as it seems to be constructed backwards (not to keep people out, but to keep something in). The creepy caretaker of the place (William Morgan Sheppard) warns Woermann not to let his men stay there and not to ever touch the crosses made of nickel that decorate the place. Naturally, a few greedy German soldiers discover that one of the crosses is actually made of silver and remove it from the wall. Big mistake. Something very powerful and destructive is released, in a really great scene where the camera slowly and continuously pulls back from a soldier’s face for almost a whole minute, eventually revealing a cavernous chamber in front of him. The evil entity of “The Keep”, once or twice referred to as Molasar, appears as a half-muscular/half-skeletal demon who is accommpanied by thick fog when he travels its corridors, and is like a vampire in the sense that he seems to absorb the life essence of the soldiers he kills.
You shall not pass!
Woermann is unable to figure out what is killing his men, so his superiors send in the SS, headed by Major Kaempffer (a young looking Gabriel Byrne), who thinks it’s just partisans and starts shooting villagers in retribution. After strange writings are found on the walls of the keep, sickly Jewish professor Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen) is called in to translate, bringing along his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson). Eva is almost raped by German soldiers (natch) when she is rescued by Molasar, who solicits Dr. Cuza’s assistance by posing as a golem. If Cuza can remove a certain talisman from the bowels of the Keep, Molasar will be free to destroy the Nazis. In exchange for his help, Cuza is able to walk again, and steadily grows younger. Thrown into the mix is Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn), who was hanging out in Greece when he was supernaturally alerted to Molasar’s awakening. Glaeken’s true nature is kept mysterious – he’s obviously supernatural, as evidenced by his occasional glowing eyes, super strength, and green blood. He travels to the Keep to put a stop to the evil entity, but before he does that he manages to bed Eva within 5 minutes of meeting her.
Han Solo is still frozen in carbonite.
Here’s where I stop to explain that The Keep is, half the time, an incomprehensible mess, filled with disjointed editing, a screwed up sound mix (much of the dialogue sounds like it was re-dubbed in post-production in a rush, and some of it is unintelligible), and confusing plot (I had to look up “Molasar” and “Glaeken” from the interwebs, because their names are hardly mentioned in the film). There’s no real explanation about anything that’s going on – especially as to the nature of the two supernatural deities who battle one another in a funny laser light show at the end of the picture. It’s sorta obvious that Molasar is no “golem” as he appears to be, but more of an ancient evil that corrupts the souls of people around it. Cuza’s need for vengeance against the Nazis and Kaempffer’s immorality fuel it (as the entity says to Kaempffer “Where am I from? I am from you.” before crushing his crucifix). Glaeken’s meeting with Eva consists of merely a few words before she jumps right into the sack with him – it’s obvious to me that this was less bad writing and more a hack-and-slash job from studio editors (indeed, I just read that the original cut of The Keep is 3.5 hours long – almost all current versions of the movie clock in at 96 minutes). But, to my surprise, a lot of this is forgivable, as the movie is such a gorgeous visual experience. I think that the Mann’s film is intended to be interpreted as a dream (watch the beginning where Woermann’s jeep rolls in through the fog and he has his eyes closed). The rest of it is in the spirit of a fairy tale, with some Lovecraftian elements.
Going down to the Keep's basement to replace the fuses.
As for Glaeken’s true nature, it’s apparent that he’s some sort of angel and protector. We are given hints through symbols – his lack of reflection in a mirror, a kind of psychic power over others, and a sex scene that mirrors a crucifixion, which foreshadows a sacrifice. I realize that the novel delves deep into the mythology – I have not read it, but believe it or not, I don’t think you need to read it to enjoy the film. The Keep contrasts the evil of the being inside the fortress walls and the evil of the Nazis, although it seems that by the end of the movie they are merely reflections of each other. The citadel seems to draw out the inner darkness of anyone inside it, suggesting that the title is referring to something internal, not external. It is interesting how it gradually turns Woermann into a sympathetic character, even if the character is confusingly drawn (at the beginning, he expresses giddiness at Germany being the “masters of the world”, stark contrast with his spoken philosophy near the end of the movie). Yes, the movie’s a mess and may not be suitable for those who want explanations for everything, but I still dig it – I like the way it looks (great scenery and establishing shots) and I like the Tangerine Dream score (and sometimes the thing feels like an Italian horror, with mood and appearance winning out over logic and dialogue – especially in the beginning scenes). There’s a sublime quality to it and no mistaking that it has Mann’s personal touch. Maybe one day, Mann, TD, and Paramount will do the right thing, sort out their differences, and release an uncut, restored version on Blu-Ray. Until then, we’ll just have to deal with the theatrical release, which is only on the old VHS or, more recently, Netflix’s streaming version, which is fortunately in widescreen and is the best it has ever looked (so far).
- Bill Gordon
Hey buddy, slap me some skin!