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: **