Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Keep (1983)

Directed by: Michael Mann

Set in WW2 Romania, German soldiers takeover an ominous castle in a small Carpathian Mountains village known mysteriously as The Keep. They are sternly warned by the castle's caretakers to not disturb any of the 108 shimmery crosses adorning the stone walls, which the greedy Nazis believe are made of some very valuable silver. Despite these warnings, the Nazis attempt to swipe one of the crosses, but end up stumbling upon an expansive tomb hidden within The Keep intended to forever entrap a malevolent evil force named Molasar. With one cross removed, this evil force is unleashed and free to wreak havoc within the castle, primarily by charring Nazis to nothing but sizzling, blood-spewing skeletons through dazzling yet deadly light-shows. Way to go, Nazis. Of course, it would've been nice had the caretakers simply told them that Beelzebub was renting a room in the basement.

As soldiers meet their grisly demise, Nazi-leader Major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) begins to execute the Romanian villagers until someone gives them answers behind the supernatural killings. Eventually, they are forced to retrieve scleroderma-stricken Jewish historian Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) from a death camp to translate a message scrawled in an ancient language on one of the walls. Dr. Cuza translates the message easily, and rather anti-climatically, as "I will be free!" Being a crafty spirit, Molasar turns Dr. Cuza from an enemy to an ally after rescuing Eva from rapist soldiers and curing him of his illness by smacking the bejesus out of the old wheelchair-bound historian with his electric red pimp hand. In exchange for all this, Molasar asks Dr. Cuza to locate an object hidden within the Keep that will allow him to freely venture outside the castle walls.

While Dr. Cuza searches for this object, a similarly super-powered drifter called Glaeken (Scott Glenn), whose eyes radiate bright white light, embarks on a journey by motorcycle en route to The Keep. Upon his arrival, Eva's unable to resist Glaeken's violet purple contact lenses and immediately jumps into the sack with him, giving us a love scene that reminds one of fiercely rubbing two water-sogged sticks together to spark a fire. Meanwhile, Dr. Cuza uncovers the object, that looks like a poor man's magic bullet with wings pasted on it, and it's up to Glaeken and Eva to deter the misled professor from utilizing this artifact to set Molasar free.

With only his second film, Michael Mann demonstrates an astounding visual mastery in The Keep that undeniably foreshadows a successful career ahead with films like Heat, The Insider and Ali. It's shot with an epic flair not typically associated with Mann's often grainy workman-like yet impressive compositions. The film is stunning to watch, forged with sweeping tracking shots and captivating cinematography that skillfully melds Carpenter-esque blues, vibrant whites and brooding shadows; there's a threatening edginess in the way the light seemingly erupts from still darkness to elevate the horror aesthetic.

The story weaknesses prevent The Keep from ranking amongst Mann's best films, but this picture assuredly rates with his best visually composed works. It is a testament to Mann's dedication that he applies this high-reaching level of effort to every frame of a film with such a poor screenplay. Although, any blame for the screenwriting rests solely on Mann's shoulders since his name receives the lone scripting credit. It's almost as if Mann tries to overwhelm you directorially as to not underwhelm you narratively.

Adapted from a successful series of novels penned by renowned horror scribe F. Paul Wilson, the screenplay undermines the majority of the film. We aren't given a lot of answers to pivotal questions: Why do the Nazis care so much about the Keep? And why don't they just take off once they realize an evil demon's on the loose? What's making those crosses glow? Who is this Glaeken, anyway? Why is he so powerful? How is that object trapping Molasar in the castle? And who, or what, is Molasar exactly?

Nitpicks aside, the largest narrative issue is the absence of a main character, or a primary protagonist, at the very least. The protagonist is probably intended to be Scott Glenn's drifter, but the character lacks backstory, motivation and significant screen time; Glaeken appears in approximately less than fifteen minutes worth of scenes, barely more than a cameo. His character feels like there's ample footage on the cutting room floor somewhere, but Glenn's insipid performance indicates story material without such insight. There's a similar uncertainty to Ian McKellen's performance, which is perhaps his weakest I've seen even if it's not bad; I-Mac's performance borders on uneven, struggling to play it straight or campy. It's unfortunate that Molasar couldn't cure him of scleroderma and his subpar acting. Gabriel Byrne fairs the best out of the big-named actors, choosing to emote it all seriously and sticking to the cold one-note simplicity of his character.

If Mann's direction is the standout element, the brilliant score composed by Tangerine Dream runs a very close second. Like any great score, Tangerine Dream's work acts as the glue holding everything together, enriching the best parts and rescuing the worst ones. The signature pulsating eighties synth sound with melodramatic strands enhances the dream-like quality of the film and maximizes the foreboding doom. It takes a fantastic score like this to accept obviously meager budgeted effects that look like plasma ball shockwaves, smoke machine induced billowing evil spirit clouds and Molasar's awfully rubbery humanoid form reminiscent of an oversized Masters of the Universe toy with less articulation.

Make or Break scene - The scene that makes the film is when the pair of treasure-seeking Nazis release Molasar from his tomb. Mann's superb touch makes this scene eerie, dreadful and purely wondrous for the eyeballs. Also, you feel the least amount of budget strain as the effects are suitably gory without coming off as overly cheap or unbelievable. The only downside to this scene is that it may set you up to expect a better film that you get over the duration.

MVT - Michael Mann, the director. Not Michael Mann, the writer. The Keep is clearly an inferior work in the hands of a superior director. Mann's direction is A-List even if he's supposed to be making a B-film here. If any other director was given this script, I think The Keep would be long forgotten and chalked-up to a bad film better left unseen. That's not say that other directors don't have the same talent, it's just that I'd be hard pressed to believe that any other director would remain so committed to exquisitely directing this material. It's worth checking out to see what Mann's able to accomplish and it looks surprisingly fantastic via Netflix Instant View.

Score - 6.75/10


  1. Good god !! I didn't realise this was a Michael Mann movie! It has quite a good cast as well. I read the novel way back in the very early 1980's when it was published, and remember seeing this movie adaptation and being unimpressed. As I re-call it diverged from the novel too much.
    What surprises me to is the fact that it keps cropping on many blogs even though it was never rated as a particularly good movie. I thought it had slipped into complete oblivion!! Obviously not.

  2. Thanks for reading...I knew of The Keep for a while via some people involved in producing it, but it was hard to find since it wasn't out on DVD and I think the VHS was even OOP long before VCRs died. I think it's popping up on blogs because the film just hit Netflix Instant very recently. If Mann's name wasn't on it, you'd never be able to guess it was him behind the camera.

  3. Caught this on cable late one night back in the eighties and really got sucked in by the fantastically moody opening scenes of the German army rolling into the village. I really liked Jurgen Prochnow as the reasonable nazi (there's an oxymoron) stuck in between fanatical Byrne and fanatical McKellen. As you point out, the screenplay flaws are epic, and Scott Glenn's performance in Gargoyles was Oscar-worthy compared to his one in The Keep, but I still really enjoyed the film. I'll definitely be checking it out on Instant again very soon. Thanks for the review!

  4. It's a shame this isn't readily available on DVD. I have a crappy bootleg VHS copy myself. Seemed that there was a much bigger story they were trying to tell and I feel much of this film was left on the cutting room floor. I love the atmosphere with this one and also enjoy seeing a much younger McKellen.