Monday, 13 February 2012

The Keep (1983)

Country: USA/UK

The gothic horror fantasy The Keep had everything going for it when pre-production began in 1982/3. The novel by F. Paul Wilson was a bestseller, and the director Michael Mann was coming into his second film off the back of a critical and commercial success with his debut effort Thief (1981). The film had a respectable budget of $6,000,000, and a solid and dependable cast that included Scott Glenn, Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, and Ian McKellan. The casting however is very instructive; while all these actors are respectable in their own right, none of them were stars. The Keep was clearly the Michael Mann show, and the writer/director is both the worst and the best thing about the film. The novel represents a challenge too adaptation, and Mann was clearly not up to the task. His initial cut of the film ran to over two hundred minutes -  somebody should have reminded him his name was Michael Mann not Francis Ford Mann! And much of the controversy around the film centres on the studios decision to cut the film down to a more palatable one hundred minutes. The question of whether Mann’s cut would have made any more sense is moot, the film exists as it does. And in its present form it is untidy, chaotic, incoherent, and confused. The Keep fails dismally as a story; plot development lacks even the most basic sense of continuity and the narrative is a mangled mess. But from a visual perspective The Keep is a stunning success; it overflows with one striking image after another, and is stylistically at least, one of the most beautiful horror/fantasy films of the 1980’s.


The Keep’s status as the embarrassing bastard of Mann’s filmography would seem to be confirmed by the bizarre state of its current distribution. Whatever the films weaknesses surely it is deserving of a DVD release? The generic nature of the movie is certainly atypical in his career, but the principle storytelling device of doubles or doppelgangers that represent opposing moral positions runs throughout his oeuvre and is utilised here very noticeably with Glaekan/Molasar, Woermann/Kaempffer, and Dr. Cuza/Father Fonescu. Unfortunately all of these sets of characters are only given brief opportunities to show their clashing ideologies. The best is an encounter between world weary soldier Woermann (played at the brink of exhaustion by Jürgen Prochnow) and his preening S.S. superior Kaempffer (played with arrogant self assuredness by Gabriel Byrne).  The opposing belief systems of the two Germans is given metaphoric resonance by the location itself, and by the ancient creature that stirs in the bowels of The Keep. Unfortunately this is hijacked somewhat by the screenplay’s decision to state this implicitly within the dialogue. Nevertheless the moral dilemma at the heart of the film, which centres around Dr. Cuza’s (Ian McKellen) willingness to use evil to defeat evil remains undiluted. Cuza represents the tragic heart of The Keep, a crippled Jewish historian who effortlessly deceives and outsmarts the loathsome Kaempffer, but who himself is betrayed and deceived by a force of ancient malevolence that preys on his Jewish insecurities in its bid for freedom. It is regrettable though that in the hands of McKellen, Cuza becomes little more than a clown.

The film was shot entirely in the United Kingdom with interiors at Shepperton Studios, and exteriors at various locations in Wales. Unfortunately little is actually made of the Welsh landscape that doubles for a Romanian village in the heart of the Carpathian mountains. But The Keep itself which is the locus of such mystery and superstition is atmospherically conveyed. Mann’s expert tracking shots glide through grey passageways, inhospitable rooms, and gloomy crypts, occasionally alighting on the silver crosses that are embedded in the concrete as a means to ensure that Molasar remains a prisoner. One facet of the novel which remains unexplored is the question of vampirism. On one level Wilson’s novel is a clever revision of certain plot elements from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and while Molasar is a fearsome and frightening prescence in the book, the rubber suited monster that is vanquished with absurd ease by the savant character has to rate as a major disappointment. Earlier glimpses which centre on the creatures blazing red eyes and the effects of his powers (this includes heads and bodies exploding in slow motion) are far more successful. His opponent is equally bland, and despite some funky contact lenses, Scott Glenn is totally insipid as the mysterious warrior whose destiny is inextricably linked with The Keep’s inhabitant.

Mann and is collaborators must be commended for creating a palpable sense of alienated and subjective terror through a dreamy visual style that conjures up a sensibility of primordial wickedness. The expressionistic lighting strategies, the judicious use of slow motion, and the far from judicious use of dry ice, almost manages to compensate for the yawning emotional chasm at the heart of the film. The total lack of humanity conveyed by the performers only serves to highlight that The Keep is little more than a technical exercise. It is a very beautiful exercise in style, but with nobody to root for, or to even mildly sympathise with, its failure to find an audience isn’t overly surprising. In terms of its place within the horror genre (a position that is contestable) it is cut adrift, singular and frustrating, implausible yet all the more wonderful for it. When the dry ice has cleared and The Keep stands to attention, it is not Michael Mann, or any of the actors or technicians that emerge into the purifying rays of the sun, but the magnificent electronic mood music of Tangerine Dream.

© Shaun Anderson 2012


  1. Some films are so maddening because you know what brilliant movies they should have been instead of the mediocre movies that they, for some reason, turned out to be. "The Keep" most certainly falls into that catagorie. All the elements were here for something quite superb and yet it just didn`t happen, oddly though i still think its the directors best film (by a long way) because all his other films are (in my opinion) ludicrously over-rated and out-moded garbage.

  2. Nice review. Only just found out about this film a few years ago and have managed to track down a decent copy. Just got to finish reading Wilson's book first.

    Always been a fan of Mann crime thrillers but this sounds like such a leftfield choice.

  3. @ Anonymous - A lot of unrealised potential, I'd certainly agree with that. One does wonder how the film would've turned out had Mann's initial cut of the film been released. I think it intrigues people because its a notable failure in an otherwise highly acclaimed filmography. I personally agree with you about the films of Mr. Mann, though I do think THIEF represents his best work - Thanks for stopping by.

    @ Jack - Yes it's certainly a curiosity isn't it? I thought Wilson's novel was very good. It inspired me to pick up another of his entitled THE TOMB, but it just didn't do anything for me. Wilson has gone on record as saying he didn't think much of Mann's film version.

  4. Ugh, this movie was a total mess! However I did like the two soldiers exploring that passageway that led into the vast passageway beneath the castle... I'll still give the Wilson novel a chance someday.

  5. I remember seeing this one years ago and liking the atmosphere and dread. The last moments when they finally get to meet the thing down below where a highlight for me...I'd love to give it a rewatch if it ever makes it to dvd.

  6. I haven't seen it in years and couldn't make heads or tales of it at the time. The only things I remember about it are the monster and the thick atmosphere. Excellent write up as always Shaun.

  7. Shaun great write up! I have also seen this movie many a year ago, and found myself both baffled and intrigued at the time. Although if memory serves I was probably the age of Adrian Mole (First book) when I watched it. I do like some of Michael Mann's other work and find a strong theme of most of his films is his ability to set a good atmosphere and visual tone throughout . The Keep is a film I would like to revisit one day, although I believe Sir Ian McKellen pre-Gandalf work was less to be desired in this one!

  8. @ Will - Yes, that's one of the best scenes...especially when they run toward the silver cross in slow motion to the pulsing tones of Tangerine Dream. I'm surprised you haven't read the novel, it's well worth a go.

    @ Franco - I can't see the present distribution situation of THE KEEP lasting. It has gained something of a cult reputation, and there is increasing pressure for it to be released. There are some reasonably decent prints kicking around the internet to download though.

    @ Brian - Thanks for the kind words, you're quite right...all atmosphere and little else.

    @ Feore - I think trying to understand THE KEEP is a fruitless task, you just have to go with it. The novel is worth reading though, and does aid understanding a little. I have a copy of the film burned to DVD, so if you do want to see it again, just give me a shout.

  9. When we meet up for our next pint or three of Ruddles, I would appreciate if you could bring along that burned copy of The Keep.


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