Such potential. What happened?
The Plot: A squadron of German soldiers during World War II are assigned to set up base in an ancient keep deep in a Romanian village. Ignoring warnings to stay away from the keep, a mysterious demon is unleashed when two soldiers try to steal from the building’s treasures.
The Keep is a real anomaly in the canon of films directed by Michael Mann in that it’s the only out-and-out SF/horror film he’s ever made. He’s mostly a thriller director with films like Thief, Heat, Manhunter, Collateral, Miami Vice (the TV series and its very different film spin-off made decades later) providing sleek, modern, moody and atmospheric entertainment with varying degrees of success. Thief, his first film, is his leanest and possibly finest work, greatly helped by a terrific lead performance from James Caan (not to mention a remarkable one from Robert Prosky as the avuncular but ultimately terrifying villain), a cracking soundtrack from German electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream and some mightily effective violent action. On the other hand, the cinematic version of Miami Vice was seriously unimpressive, and to date remains the only film I’ve ever walked out of. This doesn’t mean it’s the worst film I’ve ever seen at the cinema, but I was watching it alone and felt no need to stay seated when it was boring me so much. Elsewhere, the impressive but overcooked and overrated Manhunter gave the impression of being an intelligent, serious adult thriller but sneakily did so by looking so damn stylish and sophisticated. He’s also made biopics of John Dillinger and Muhammad Ali, not to mention the beautifully understated The Insider, as well as the historical epic The Last of the Mohicans. Odds are fans of the Mann will find much to like across all of these films…except The Keep. It’s still unmistakably a Michael Mann film – the use of atmospherics, the electronic score, the meditative/borderline pretentious style, but fans of Heat and Collateral might be surprised with the presence of Nazis, demons, mysticism, scares, sex and far-out imagery.
I wanted to love The Keep. It’s a horror film set during World War II, an idea which has been done again since, but was pretty unique at the time. It has a strong cult reputation too, which piqued by interest. It’s also pretty rare – apparently Mann has withheld its DVD release – which only makes its reputation greater. I’ve read that it was screened as part of BBC2’s Moviedrome series, back when Alex Cox was the presenter, and HMV blagged an exclusive VHS release in the late nineties, albeit in a non-widescreen version. Film Four showed a widescreen version a couple of times too, but apart from that, it’s pretty obscure, only doing the online rounds in its laserdisc format. However, Netflix are streaming the film now, so maybe it’ll get more exposure. Not that I want people to watch it in the version it’s been released in. Originally The Keep was three and a half hours long before it was cut pre-release. The released version is just over 90 minutes. That’s TWO HOURS missing. No wonder the version of The Keep available doesn’t make any bloody sense. There are some versions with the odd extra scene or alternative ending out there, but for the most part, The Keep is a savagely compromised version of the real thing.
The film is based on a gripping novel by F. Paul Wilson, which I finally got round to reading years after first watching and being confounded by the film. The novel is a real treat and fills in all the gaps present in the film, whilst adding so much to the characters and the overall story – it’s visceral, scary, powerful and lots of fun. Here we really get to know the characters – Woermann, the reluctant soldier who loves his country but refuses to become a Nazi, Kaempfferr the brutal, yet cowardly Nazi, Glaeken, the mysterious traveller who holds the secret to defeating the Keep’s powers and Eva, the Jewish daughter of the professor who becomes seduced by the keep’s powers. In the novel, each of these characters gets first-person narrative treatment, and we really get into their heads. In the film, we are mere witnesses to their actions, and a lot of it doesn’t make any sense. No wonder Wilson was appalled by the treatment his book got when he watched the adaptation on screen. The thing is, he was watching an incomplete adaptation. Who knows what he’ll think of the full cut, if it ever gets released. Wilson ended up co-creating a comic book version of the novel which he regards as the definitive visual adaptation of the novel. The problem is, the comic version’s narrative is far too rushed and the artwork bland and indistinctive, to the point where it’s difficult to tell characters apart. The film, for all its flaws, at least forged its own character, and by that I mean atmosphere, which Mann does at least give us in spades. The opening shot, which begins way, way up in the clouds before slowly moving down, down, down and down until we reach forests and then the road, where the German patrol are driving their way towards the keep, is a peach. And this is all accompanied by Tangerine Dream’s driving, eerie score. The film takes its time to establish atmosphere, and it’s over five minutes before anyone talks. Now I imagine this would be perfectly fine in the full-length version, where we have over three hours to luxuriate in Mann’s set-ups and visuals, but not in this short version, which has way too much plot to deal and not enough time for slow-motion establishing shots, which, as beautiful as they are here, could have been reduced so we could be given more character or plot….anything!
To be fair, the first act of The Keep does a grand job of setting the scene – fans of the book will be frustrated, but impressed. The keep and its surrounding village, are beautifully visualised. Jurgen Prochnow, the lead in Das Boot, seems a perfect casting choice as Woermann – full of presence, and strangely sympathetic (it’s all in the eyes), whilst his face-offs with Gabriel Byrne’s borderline camp Nazi are full of tension. There’s a fantastic sequence near the beginning (which was also brilliant in the book), where two foolish soldiers hunt for silver within the keep, only to release the demon inside! Idiots. This sequence features one of Tangerine Dream’s best ever film pieces. TD were one of the major players in the German ‘Krautrock’ movement in the seventies alongside Can, Kraftwerk, Neu! and Cluster, their heavily electronic, pulsating epic instrumentals sounding like they belonged on derelict space stations or the stargate at the end of 2001. By the end of the decade they were becoming more melodic, and wrote their first film score for William Friedkin’s Sorcerer in 1977. By the time of The Keep, they were doing very nicely in their new phase as film composers – and this film has some of their best moments. Anyway, in this sequence with the soldiers, there’s one of my all-time favourite shots when one of the soldiers crawls through this secret tunnel and is almost dragged into oblivion when he holds onto the edge of nowhere, looking down before him. Now this shot starts with the soldier looking out, and then moves back, back, back…..further back, further back, until we realise the inside of this keep goes on forever. All the while, the sight of the soldier rapidly diminished until all we can see is a little dot at the top of the screen…..meanwhile, we’ve arrived at some spooky ruins, where a magic light appears out of nowhere and heads up, right towards the tunnel, towards the dot…before consuming it. It’s a very classy, very cool shot, and what follows next is pleasingly nasty when we discover the fate of the soldiers.
Up until this point, The Keep is great stuff – then the hero enters the scene and anyone who hasn’t read the book might be thinking ‘what the…’ All hell’s breaking loose in the keep, and then all of a sudden, this random bloke with glowing eyes wakes up in bed, packs his stuff and gets on a boat. Fair enough – I’m sure this’ll be explained. And it is explained, I guess – this guy’s destined to fight the evil within the keep, right? Well, in the book, we get to spend a lot more time with this character, and work out his motivations and reasons. When the Jewish heroine and her knowledgeable but infirm father (who knows the history of the keep and is dragged there to help solve its mysteries) arrive on the scene around the same time, both hero and heroine get romantically involved. In the book, this relationship takes time to develop, and there’s a real sense of love between the two. In the film, they meet up, have a chat and are having sex in no time. It’s almost laughable. Scott Glenn plays the hero – Glaeken is his name – and he plays it so commendably straight that you can’t really fault his performance, but it’s unintentionally amusing nonetheless because he’s so earnest. The rest of the film is so narratively choppy and clearly cut to shreds by outside interference that you fail to get involved. The keep’s demon – a deviously manipulative, clever and mysterious monster in the book, is reduced to a tall man in an unconvincing costume with glowing eyes. Ah yes, the glow. There are a lot of lights and glowing in this film, which might have looked halfway cool back in 1983, but now looks badly dated. The final showdown is the equivalent of a Pink Floyd tribute band’s light show, and it’s hopelessly silly. And herein lies my worries that even a full-length version of The Keep might still not be all that – unless a totally different ending was shot, a three and a half hour cut would still end with this silly laser and dry-ice effects showcase that doesn’t have much tension, or emotional weight.
Various other good elements – Ian McKellen is always good value. He plays the Jewish professor, and does his best underneath all the aged make-up the filmmakers have slapped on him. The dialogue has its moments. Gabriel Byrne, despite edging close to OTT, is suitably despicable. There’s a cool bit where some savage rapist bastard Nazi’s head explodes. Oddly enough, there’s very little blood in this movie. We get exploding bodies, severed bodies, shootings….but barely any blood. Honestly, Raiders of the Lost Ark has nastier afterlife-Vs-Nazi violence lashed out, and that was a PG, while this was (and still is, I assume) an ‘18’. Though Raiders didn’t have a spooky extended sex scene involving a centuries-old warrior and a woman he’s just met, admittedly.
Overall, it’s a hopeless compromise of the book. Honestly, read it, and think what the film could have been. There’s a good cause for a proper remake/adaptation, though I’d prefer to see what the full-length version is about, as Mann’s use of atmospherics (before he goes overboard at the end), is quite spectacular. I would only recommend The Keep for genre fans – it’s not a good film, not at all, but it has the classic ingredients of a cult film – half deeply flawed, half inspired, with great visuals, great music and great ideas. Everybody else will think it’s a load of balls.