Vic’s Guilty Pleasure: “The Keep” (1983)

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What’s it About?

Nazis are forced to turn to a Jewish historian for help in battling the ancient demon they have inadvertently freed from its prison.

“The Keep”

Directed by Michael Mann

By Vic

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By now, I’m sure, most of those who are reading this know the harried and controversial history (and the plot) of Paramount’s “The Keep” which was released in 1983. It was the old studio vs the director type of greek tragedy that always ends in bitterness and the singular vision of the director left in ruins. For the most part the film is loathed by many and marginally liked by those fringe curiosity seekers of edgy or artsy cinema. I feel that most believe  that the movie is just a failure on so many levels.

One being, the way the film renders the novel impotent. Fans of the book (like myself) don’t see eye to eye with the way the movie turned out. So, then we have the solid polarizing views. I, though, do like some things but just barely. I suppose the imagery and score are the reasons why I re-visit this movie from time to time, making it a true guilty pleasure on my end.

Michael Mann’s film adaptation of the stellar historical horror / fantasy novel, “The Keep” is one hell of a curious piece of cinema. It is a weird concoction of beautiful, melodic imagery, ethereal and moody music but it’s brought down by heavy handed performances, choppy editing and muddy dialogue. The film has a funky avant garde vibe, made evident through long and Kubrick-esque shots, but Mann’s execution and vision is constantly at odds in this movie. In some parts it is held together by frayed seams. Other parts are curiously complex to look at always skirting the periphery of the strange, queer and the indistinct.

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He quite, at times, tests our patience with this film. The movie’s opening consists of an attachment of German soldiers in a convoy approaching “The Keep.” Here, Mann stretches time and unfolds the proceedings with slow and deliberate tracking shots along with several cuts from truck wheels to rain swept villagers to Sgt. Woermann’s (Jurgen Prochnow) piercing blue eyes. All the while he un-spools the strangely inappropriate but atmospheric score by Tangerine Dream (Legend, Firestarter) ever so slowly. Mann’s sensibility is to immerse us into this fantasy with an art house horror approach. Most of the time it doesn’t work, unfortunately.

Through-out the movie there would be a fascinating visual sequence followed by a boring or pedestrian exchange between characters. Or vice versa. Then the way the film is so dark and lazily cut together does not help either. Mann’s palette is dull at times but then he surprises us with beautifully composed shots of the surrounding landscape just outside of the keep or of the fog filled dirt roads of the nearby Romanian village. Mann’s characters (with the exception of Prochnow and Gabriel Byrne as Major Kaempffer) are ultimately bland and sometimes approach camp with the help of some very confusing dialogue and motivations but the movie follows F. Paul Wilson’s novel in spirit. Somewhat.

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Wilson’s book is about two ancient and opposing forces (it was veiled thinly as a vampire story) where Mann’s movie is about a type of Golem (though that is not really what he is) that is unleashed by German soldiers and cannot leave The Keep. The book and novel explore themes of genocide, deception, faith, ancient forces, politics and love of course but it is all done with incredible detail by Wilson in his book and Mann seems a bit too hung up on aesthetics to make an lasting impression. But I love the imagery and I love how the film wants to be an art house vision of dread and terror.

I commend Mann most of the time for creating a very (though rubbery and hokey looking) different type of monster here that harks back to the terrible creatures that haunted castles in the old creature features of the 1940’s. He isn’t the traditional vampire of lore (as he tells Ian McKellen), like the novel suggests, he is actually a force that feeds on despair, fear and evil like a leech.

The creature uses deception to get what he wants, warning Cuza of someone who may come for him and prevent him from leaving The Keep.  He even has a cool deep voice that is quite chilling. Prof. Cuza and the beast (or ghost ), Rasalom, conspire to eradicate the Germans starting at the keep and ending with the death of Hitler. Even the very talented and young looking McKellen, here, overacts and succeeds in chewing the scenery with glee.

Rasalom (or Molasar) helps Prof Cuza (McKellen) to get rid of the SS nazi regiment he considers “intruders” and as he does he further helps feed Rasalom’s hunger. Tearing the throats of the infidels is not quite enough. I also appreciated the way Mann’s makes the characters pretty clear cut and dry. The film has a wonderful graphic novel vibe to it and it has a dark sensibility but the story leaves just way too much unanswered. It remains too enigmatic and further creates a chasm resulting in our inability to even care for (though we love to see how Byrne’s Kaempffer gets his comeuppance) these mystical entities. Not even a young and buffed Scott Glenn (Silence of the Lambs) can successfully establish what the hell his “Glaeken” character really is. A shame.

But, all in all I know the film is quite uneven, cliche and really strange. It’s a tough film to get to really like because of the spotty editing, a score that does not seem to fit, a cheap looking monster (I liked him better as a smoke creature) and some shitty performances in parts. The film does have it’s share of love, though.

On You Tube  the movie has quite a following of people who are very appreciative of the upload even though we may never see that elusive director’s cut from Mann, who has disowned the film. The movie isn’t even that historically accurate but it is curious, engaging and compelling for some reason. Mann’s movie has some very fascinating images and sequences and I find that every time I watch it, I want a different film to emerge but to no avail. Oh well, like I said, it’s a true guilty pleasure in every respect for me.

You can watch the Full Movie below:

Enjoy “The Keep” Gallery below!

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One comment

  1. Great review! I’ve always really enjoyed The Keep as well, its really quite unnerving, and very strange film. Haven’t seen it in ages, much give this another watch soon, really good film.

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