‘The Keep’ (1983) Review

Fear Flashback is a semi-regular review column of classic (and not-so-classic) horror movies and TV shows.

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“You must not stay here…”

Full disclosure – I’ve only seen this movie twice before, and hated it both times. I’m pretty sure the last time was on VHS. I’m also writing through a migraine, so we’ll see how this goes…

The Keep is a weird outlier in Michael Mann’s filmography. In between stylish 80’s crime flicks like Thief and Manhunter there’s this, this weird… thing. This half-formed horror/fantasy movie, a mutant child disowned by its own creator. This was Mann’s second film after Thief, and I sometimes wonder what sort of films he’d have gone on to make had his experience with this one not been so terrible.

My own experience with The Keep starts with the original novel by F. Paul Wilson. The late 70’s/early 80’s were a great time to be a horror fan for both movies and novels. There was some crazy crap that got published in that time – Paperbacks From Hell by Grady Hendrix provides a fun overview – and every week brought a new batch of horror novels by people trying to be the next Stephen King. Wilson was a practicing physician and part-time writer of science fiction stories who saw a market and jumped in to the horror genre with both feet, offering up a mix of Nazis, vampire lore, classic haunted castle horror and a touch of Lovecraftian cosmic melodrama. The Keep might not have been high art, but it sure as hell was better than the likes of Fleshbait.

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I read a ton of horror in the 80’s, and The Keep stuck out. I looked past the cookie-cutter characters and awkward romance to the atmospheric location – an ancient keep high in the Transylvanian mountains. To the horrific violence against a military unable to fight back against a supernatural foe. To the ancient evil bending a man of faith to its will. And lots of dead Nazis. It’s a book I look back on with a great amount of fond nostalgia.

Any degree of devotion to source material is just asking to be let down by an adaptation, and the film version of The Keep was no exception. I was way too young to see the movie in the theater, but it’s abysmal showing guaranteed that it would quickly make its way to TV. It was soon on HBO, which is where I first saw it. Disappointment doesn’t even cover it. I hated it, HATED it. I wanted something like a classic horror movie – with an orchestral score and atmospheric lighting. Instead I got this… music video. While I liked some of the casting – Jurgen Prochnow stood out – other choices baffled me. Scott Glenn had no resemblance to the large, red-headed Glaeken described in the books.

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So, yes, I was unhappy – it might have been the first time I saw a movie adaptation that I was dissatisfied with. It wouldn’t be the last. I’ve since re-read the novel a couple of times. It’s still great fun, if a bit stiff in spots. I only re-watched the movie once, sometime in the 90’s. I was just as dismissive then.

The Medium
You can watch The Keep one of three ways: By original VHS, by increasingly difficult to find Laserdisc, or by streaming. (You can also get a cheap bootleg DVD which appears to have been struck FROM the VHS.) None of these options is in HD, but the streaming – at least on Amazon, where I watched it – is in widescreen. The picture quality is variable, with some scenes degenerating into digital noise and other shots being near HD quality.

The Movie
The Keep starts off well enough, with a pounding electronic beat and what seems like the longest downward pan in film history, from a sky roiling with clouds through a vast swath of rainy mountain forest to finally reveal a line of military vehicles making their way through a mountain pass. This is the German army, making their way to a village high in Dinu pass.

I’m already way more positive about this film than I expected. At this date the driving electronic score (by 80’s soundtrack stalwarts Tangerine Dream) is now atmospheric and interesting. The shots of mountain scenery and clouds interspersed with close ups of Jurgen Prochnow’s face and rain soaked military vehicles is visually dramatic and the whole helps build a surreal and disconnected mood. The slow motion drive into the village, with the requisite creepy villagers staring as the column goes by, adds to the atmosphere.

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The movie actually proceeds fairly well at first. The Keep is covered in strange crosses. No one stays there, says the caretaker, because of the nightmares. The Germans have a job to do, however, and so they move in. Soon a dissolute solider is looking for treasure behind the walls and mistakenly unleashes an ancient evil.

Yeah, so all the things that bugged me when I first saw this movie are revealed as stylistic choices, bright lights, slow motion, epic electronica – there’s a vision here that might be at odds with what I expected given my love of the novel, but that works. It’s odd, it’s visually arresting, it’s… dammit, it’s pretty entertaining. There are the trappings of a horror movie – gory decapitations, swirling smoke, spooky lighting – but it’s not really a horror movie, or at least not an American one. If anything it’s got more in common with Italian horror films. It’s all spectacle and music, with plot secondary at best. That long pullback from the soldier’s light into the dim recess of the mountain cave… that’s an amazing shot, given this is all pre-CGI.

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With the release of whatever hides in the keep there’s also an awakening in a man far away. This strange figure (Scott Glenn) picks up a mysterious package and looks for sea passage to Romania. Again, this is all way better than I remember. Moody, well shot – that long sequence of the boat going from night into the glowing sunrise is beautiful.

And then there’s the first plot jump. It’s not the worst, but it’s significant. Time has passed and soldiers have died in the Keep. So the SS arrives and begins doing what they do – which is kill innocent civilians. This is in an attempt to frighten ‘partisans’ into ceasing their activities against the German army.  Gabriel Byrne does as much as he can with SS officer Kaempffer, but the character is little more than a cardboard cutout. He mostly shouts and glowers and Prochnow’s Captain Woermann overpowers him (personality and dialogue wise) in every scene they’re in. It feels like a missed opportunity.

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In an attempt to figure out what’s happening a Jewish historian, Theodore Cuza (a young-but-playing-old Ian McKellen) is brought in, along with his young daughter Eva (Alberta Watson). McKellen overplays the character terribly, unfortunately, with way too much affect and bombast. The mysterious killer arrives in a cloud of smoke to save Eva from lecherous Nazis. It also heals the professor from an ailment, though why is not immediately clear. The smoke effects on the bad guy are actually pretty decent, especially for the time. At least he’s not just a guy in a monster suit, right?

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After this the plot holes proliferate fast and furiously. The mysterious man with the package arrives and has a confrontation with Eva that leads somehow to an awkward 80’s sex scene. Cuza agrees to help the bad guy who is revealed as… a guy in a rubber suit (dammit). Some characters go crazy (the priest apparently kills his dog and drinks its blood on the altar, at least I THINK that’s what happens). The mysterious good guy is shot by the Nazis. Kaempffer kills Woermann. Something kills all the German soldiers (but off screen) and Cuza finds a weird flashlight deep in the Keep. There’s a final confrontation between the good guy and the bad guy (who are named Glaeken and Molasar in conversations that are so quick and badly recorded you could be forgiven for missing them). It’s the worst kind of anticlimactic smoke and light show you can imagine.

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Ah. There’s that sense of disappointment I remember. And that sense of missed opportunity.

In the time since the film’s release there’s been plenty of information – from both Wilson and Mann – about the issues that the film faced. In particular the death of the man in charge of the special effects. Wally Veevers, who had worked on 2001 and Superman, had a process that required scenes to be shot in a particular way. With his death it became impossible to complete that process, and so the original – supposedly epic – final battle had to be reshot. By that time the studio had begun to lose faith in the project and Mann’s original cut, purportedly over three hours, was trimmed down to a mere 96 minutes. Mann avoids talking about the film and Wilson was so disappointed that he wrote a comic book adaptation in 2006 as his “version” of the film. Given the time and antipathy of most of the creative parties a “director’s cut” or even a bog-standard blu-ray release seems unlikely.

The Bottom Line
You can’t help but think of what might have been! The Keep IS a better movie than I remember, but it’s early promise is gutted by a second half that’s reduced to nonsense by indiscriminate editing and the loss of the original ending. I’d love for someone to recover the original footage and for Mann to come around on a re-release, but The Keep may end up being one of those films whose original vision is never fully realized. It’s worth a look, however, if only for a glimpse at one of the strange, lost projects of a visionary and successful director, early in his career.

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A fan documentary, A World War II Fairytale: The Making Of Michael Mann’s The Keep has been in production for some time. The last word on their Facebook page mentions a 2020 release date.