The Keep (1983)

When it’s on: Saturday, 1 December (12.15 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Still to be released on DVD and therefore a bit of a rare treat, Michael Mann’s 1983 offering, The Keep, is a heady mixture of good and ill. Fans of the Mann will no doubt find much to love, and indeed many of the qualities that would emerge over the ensuing years are on show here, albeit jarring with a good deal of silliness and some very poor choices.

By all accounts, the director’s original cut ran to over three hours in length; the 96-minute finished product therefore has the look of a film that’s been edited rather harshly, and at times it shows. The pace is utterly uneven. At the end of certain scenes, the camera pans away to nothing; presumably Mann’s intended vision was to cut to a scene that blended in meticulously with what had just been shown, but that’s gone and we’re left with meaningless, random images. Then there’s the music, the Tangerine Dream score that oscillates from atmospheric, haunting synths to completely inappropriate jingling. Weird. Perhaps craziest of all is an obligatory lovemaking scene, between two characters who couple for no reason, have zero chemistry and little to suggest that the act – shot, it has to be said, rather artfully – has been shoehorned in because, hey, it’s the 1980s and you have to have the sexy stuff, right? Erm…

Despite the many quibbles, which range from banalities to serious flaws, The Keep is never less than interesting. Mann definitely hit on something when he took on the task of adapting F. Paul Wilson’s novel. The very idea of a medieval keep overseeing a Romanian village during World War Two and occupied by Nazis is enough to prick one’s interest. When one of the characters realises early that the keep was built for containment rather than to defend against someone from without, the unease is really palpable. The many nickel crosses that stand out against the structure’s austere, dark walls add an additional sense of dread, particularly when it becomes clear some of those evil Nazis are going to pluck them out, believing they’re silver and thereby sellable. The soldiers are led by Jurgen Prochnow, in the meaty role of playing a ‘good’ German officer. Later, as his men are picked off by some nameless evil, the SS turn up and they’re headed by the altogether nastier Gabriel Byrne, very young looking and wearing the most clipped of hairstyles. Also in the building is Ian McKellen’s Jewish History professor, called in to interpret the warning messages dotted around the keep. Agreeing to help because it keeps him out of the concentration camp, he gets to bring along his daughter (Alberta Watson), the film’s only female character and obviously nearly raped by Nazis before being dispatched to the village for her own safety and coming across Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn). The purple eyed Trismegestus is in the village for one reason only – to confront the evil within the keep that is being unleashed by those crazy Nazis. His supernatural abilities have already been established by this point; less clear are his reasons for bedding the lovely Ms Watson beyond placing together the two young, good looking cast members.

Soon enough, the entity held within the keep’s walls is released and goes on a killing spree, though discerningly it attacks Germans and even restores youth to the decrepit, aging McKellen. The origins and purpose of ‘Molasar’ are never fully established, though the host of worried, local faces and warning messages – those and the presence of an enormous bloody keep – more or less fill the gaps, and the film revels in its rumination on the nature of evil. What’s worse, McKellen’s character wishes to know? The entity, or the Nazis, and there’s a lovely, teasing moment when Byrne’s increasingly bewildered Major – presumably a result of having his status as baddest mother in the house usurped – asks Molasar where it comes from, only to get the inevitable answer ‘I am… from you.’

In terms of effects, The Keep is rooted in its decade. If ever a film cried out for a CGI redusting it’s this, for what we get instead is some fairly rudimentary animation and an over-reliance on smoke machines and lasers. Anyone who frequented nightclubs during this era will have experienced that ‘keep’ feel, though few establishments would have had the stones to recreate its spartan look. Molasar is a great looking demon, wreathed in smoke when we first see it and becoming more defined as it gains in strength. The village setting looks absolutely fine also, perfectly reflecting that ‘cut off from the outside world’ feeling it aims for, Gwynedd doubling for Carpathia. There’s the occasional bit of breathtaking cinematography that hints at Mann’s developing talents. At one point, a young Nazi tries to carve out a nickel cross and finds the entire block collapsing into a void beyond the wall. He crawls into the cavity to investigate, and is left dangling, lighter in hand, at the mouth of a vast cavern, the camera panning back for what feels like miles, over a landscape that’s been hidden by the keep and left in complete isolation. Strange stone structures pockmark the area – what do they mean? – whilst the man remains a fixed, alien point in the distance, a tiny flicker of light disturbing the scene of eerie serenity.

A great shame the film was so mutilated and mauled by the editors before its release. The result is a horror flick that just isn’t scary, the possibility of a meditation on evil that never really gets off the ground. It seems clear, from the scant love shown to The Keep despite its growing cult reputation, that missing footage will not be ‘discovered’ or restored and we’ll be left for good with this atmosphere-heavy, often incoherent production, the experience Mann was aiming for becoming the stuff of speculation. Not that the director escapes any blame. McKellen related how, after being cast, he went off to learn a Romanian dialect and used it when the film rolled, only to be told he had to sound ‘more Chicago.’ The actor shrugged, got on with it, and his voice became another question mark in a film riddled with inconsistencies.

The Keep: **

8 Replies to “The Keep (1983)”

  1. I’d never even heard of this before! And I like Michael Mann’s later works, so have obviously looked at his filmography and keep half an eye out for them on TV, but it somehow passed me by. It sounds like a fascinating failure that I’m now very intrigued to see, especially as supernatural horror is so outside Mann’s usual oeuvre.

    1. Thanks Bob. It’s hardly ever on and it’s lack of availability means it often gets overlooked. You’ll see why when you watch it – loads in there that’s very, very good and a genuinely fine overall concept, but lost in the execution. How much of that was down to Mann and how much the severe editing may never fully be revealed, but what’s left is a fascinating exercise in flawed film making.

  2. Greta review Mike. I’m not really a big Michael Mann fan (HEAT in particular always struck me as ansurdly over-praised) but I reremember watching this on TV in (I think) the Moviedroime slot introduced by Alex Cox and finding its weirdness quite compelling. Is there really no director’s cut out there?

    1. Thanks Sergio. I guess with Mann if you’re not overly enamored with his overly stylistic approach, then it’s all a bit silly, isn’t it? But this one’s an interesting fish, all right, and sadly I think the director’s cut is some way down the list of priorities. I don’t even think there’s a DVD release of The Keep, which seems an incredible oversight for a movie that’s flawed but has cracking atmosphere and some great moments.


  3. Good review, Mike. I thought I’d seen this years ago but couldn’t remember much about it, so persuaded the missus to record it on her Skybox on that recent Film4 screening. Watching it on New Year’s Eve, we both actually quite enjoyed it! I think you’ve been a bit harsher on the film and its effects than I would have been though. What I was surprised to find out, having had a look into it after the viewing, was that it’s never received a legitimate disc (other than Laser) release. I understand a HD master was being worked on a few months ago, so perhaps a Blu-ray might be in the works at some point, although the existence of more footage for what once might have a significantly longer version does whet the appetite somewhat. By the way, you comment in your review on the apparently gratuitous coupling of two of the main characters – my missus had an interesting theory about this in that perhaps, as some sort of guardian that he’s supposed to be, he was planting his seed effectively for the next generation and the need for continued guardianship of the keep into the future.

    Anyway, should this be coming out on Blu I’ll probably pick it up.

    1. Thanks Paul – perhaps I was a bit harsh on the effects, but I found the over-use of lasers and smoke machines to get a bit trying, especially as they jarred with some really good stuff e.g. the work on the creature’s domain, which was unsettling and very well filmed, and I quite liked Molasar it/himself.

      I did a quick Google on the possibility of the film coming out on DVD/BD and came across this article from Den of Geek – Apparently, the whole thing comes down to the music rights! Surely not an insurmountable problem, so who knows, though the film’s general obscurity could make throwing in extra footage a long shot.

      All the same, for all its ills, and on that note I’m glad you liked it, I think it’s a really intriguing picture, with loads of great ideas swilling around. I don’t know about you, but it stayed with me for some time afterward, if for no other reason the sinister atmosphere within the keep itself, which remains intact.

      Thanks again Paul, and a good call on the sex scene.

  4. That’s an interesting piece, thanks for the link. It’s ironic that one of the best aspects of the film is one of the main things holding up its re-release on disc. I suppose how insurmountable a problem it is depends, as always, on money – how much it is likely to make, and how much each relevant party wants. Pretty sad but that’s the way it is I guess.

    The film certainly did stay with me afterwards, which is what prompted me to look into it online the next day – it feels pretty different to a lot of the stuff that was being made around the period, probably because of the unusual TD score along with Michael Mann’s pretty stylised directing and lighting. I’ll certainly get this on Blu if it ever comes out, although having said that, perhaps the legendary three hour version that seems to get mentioned everywhere could be a bit much!

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