The Keep

Director: Michael Mann

USA - 1983

  Hoff! Hoff!  

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I like to consider myself a connoisseur of incomprehensible cinema. And by incomprehensible, I mean the kind of film that requires more than iWoermann approaches the Keep. ts running time to fully explain. The kind of film where unless you've read the book it was based on, you can forget about finding a narrative through-line. Think The Hunger, or Lifeforce, or Nightflyers. Well, The Keep is the King of those kind of films, and despite its many many flaws, I adore it. It's based on a novel by noted horror writer F. Paul Wilson, the first in his six book Adversary cycle. At the heart of the book are three parallel struggles: the first between mystical warrior Glaeken Trismegestus and the avatar of evil, called both Molasar and Rasalom for particularly evil and confusing reasons; the second detailing the seduction of righteous soul Dr. Theodor Cuza to evil; and the third being the conflict between German Army officer Woermann and SS Commandant Kaempffer. All of that AND World War II as well.   

The book is a satisfying and eerie read, and it makes perfect sense that they'd want a movie. So in comes Michael Mann, fresh from 1981's Thief. He adapts the screenplay, assembles a cast that includes some very interesting actors, gets several million dollars from Paramount, and heads off to England.

The end result holds together quite well for about twenty minutes, bringing the German Army (under the command of Captain Klaus Woermann, here played by Jurgen Prochnow) to an isolated area in the Carpathian Alps of Romania called the Dinu Pass, which consists of a lovely village and a terrifying fortress called, simply, the KeeInscription on wall. p. Some foolish soldiers who really should pay more attention to the creepy-old-guy-who-looks-after-the-place start messing around looking for treasure and unwittingly release an evil force from its millennia-long imprisonment. This happens in a jaw-dropping sequence that appears to be a six-hundred foot tracking shot through mid-air. Then some special effects happen, and before you know it, the movie falls completely apart.      

It's really quite odd, because I don't know whether the money ran out or the studio stepped in and started randomly cutting (though my money is on the latter because this feels like the kind of film where a five-hour version could cover everything). But all of a sudden, what takes several weeks to occur in the novel gets compressed into a few days. The SS (led by Major Erich Kaempffer, played here by Gabriel Byrne in his motion picture debut) comes in because German soldiers have been dying, and they start killing people. Then they bring in Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen in his worst performance ever) and his lovely daughter Eva (Alberta Watson, the mother from Spanking the Monkey). Then the mystical warrior shows up, and it's Scott Glenn. He's inscrutable, he doesn't have a reflection, and he looks like he's been directed to act like he's on serious downers.  He and Eva embark on a tantric sex thing before they've eveMolasar in reverse-cloud incarnation. n really spoken to one another, and the good doctor is healed by the evil force, but he doesn't think it's an evil force. Plus, there's a priest in the village named Father Fonescu, played by Robert Prosky, and he was a friend of the Cuzas, but then he isn't. Periodically, there'll also be some very intense arguments between characters that seem to be straining for some form of political or sociological heft, to no avail. Prochnow in particular has several shouting matches with Byrne about why he hates totalitarianism, which I'll leave for the political scholars to puzzle their way through.

This is the kind of film where a character turns to look in two directions, and between the first direction and the second about four chapters worth of plot happen. This is the kind of film where the two main adversaries of the piece are not mentioned by name until the last four minutes of the film, and even then only in passing and only once. There is no discipline, narrative or otherwise, which could possibly hold togethScott Glenn bleeds green? er the last seventy minutes of this film. Author Wilson was so disgusted with the end result that he wrote a short story, entitled Cuts, about a horror writer who uses voodoo to kill a director who'd misadapted one of his stories.

And yet this film is never anything less than captivating. Part of this is due to the flawless and gorgeous score by Tangerine Dream. It swirls, thuds, and suffuses the frame with an eerie, electric beauty that is quite suitably epic in tone. In addition to that, Cinematographer Alex Thomson is a genius with light, filling the anamorphic frame with an eerie and beautiful incandescence. There are several shots in this film that are quite breathtaking in terms of composition, lighting, and fear-laced beauty. The effects are a mixed bag, though since it's 1983, thankfully there is no CGI. The use of traveling Xanadu II: Mystical Warrior Throwdown. mattes and reverse-fog is excellent, as are the five or six different ways that Nazis are shattered like china dolls. The excess of lasers at the end seems a little too rollerdisco-ish and not as climactic as it doubtless was intended.

But in the annals of incomprehensible Sci-Fi/Horror, The Keep deserves to be held in some esteem. If Director Mann holds to his pattern of going back and recutting all of his films (which he has done for all of his features except The Insider and this one), perhaps one day we will see a version of The Keep that actually coheres. But until then, the mystique and the lasers and the small but vocal internet cult and the inescapable synthesizer conflagrations of Tangerine Dream will ensure that some people will find their way to The Keep every now and then.

Give the book a read. Give the film a look-see. Your eyes will be dazzled, your mind underwhelmed, and your imagination, hopefully, sparked.

 

 

 

 

-- Copyright 2001 by Jason Shawhan

 

 

 

 

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