Keep, The (1983)

The Keep (1983)

THEY WERE ALL DRAWN TO THE KEEP. The soldiers who brought death. The father and daughter fighting for life. The people who have always feared it. And the one man who knows its secret… THE KEEP Tonight, they will all face the evil.

In 1942, a detachment of the German Army is sent to guard a mysterious Romanian citadel located on a strategic mountain pass. When soldiers begin to be mysteriously murdered, the SS arrives to deal with what is thought to be partisan activity and take over proceedings. Enlisting the help of a Jew to help translate inscriptions, what they actually find is an evil force trapped within the keep which will do anything in order to escape.

 

Director Michael Mann has helmed some fantastic films in his career including Manhunter, Collateral, The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, The Insider amongst others and has been consistently ranked up there as one of the greatest directors of the past couple of decades. Like many famous directors (Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott, with sci-fi horror Alien, spring to mind), Mann has his early roots firmly in horror. The Keep was only his second feature film and his only real foray into the genre.

Originally clocking in at over three and a half hours long before producers told Mann to cut it down, The Keep is the perfect example of style over substance – an art house horror film which has been cruelly held back from realising its potential. Adapting from books come with their problems to begin with but when a director’s original vision is then restricted even further, the end result is not a true reflection of what could have been. The Keep is very much the personification of that. There is a huge swathe of ideas floating around here and lots of sub-plots which begin to develop but are cut short or are simply thrown in without any explanation whatsoever. I’m guessing the original cut explained a lot more because The Keep finishes with lots of unanswered questions and answers a lot of questions that were never asked in the first place.

Case in point being Scott Glenn’s mysterious stranger character who arrives in the town shortly after the evil inside the keep has been released. We kind of get the idea of who is he and what he’s doing (and these ideas come to fruition in the finale). But he’s a sketchy character who has no real story and feels tacked on in the current cut of the film. He shows up and has sex with Alberta Watson’s token female character (poor lass has just survived a rape by some German soldiers to boot!) and we’re meant to just shrug our shoulders and go with the flow? There’s also lots of slow-motion sequences, loud music, fancy purple lights and about a year’s supply of artificial fog in the finale where Glenn doesn’t say anything, allowing his facial expressions and actions to tell us the story. It’s all very interpretative and gets the audience to join the dots themselves rather than being spoon fed…well, just about! Those who prefer spoon feeding from their horror films won’t like this at all. Glenn’s character isn’t just the only underdeveloped aspect to the film but it’s the most blatant.

Apart from the long-winded “what the hell is going on?” narrative, The Keep’s other underlying problem is finding a protagonist to sympathise with. That’s the problem with a lot of these horror films based around Nazis – who are we meant to root for? Yes, some of them may be written more appealing to the viewer but at the end of the day, they’re still Nazis and it’s difficult to get on their side. You’d think Ian McKellen’s Jewish scholar would fare better but he’s pretty unlikeable: a bitter, selfish old man who is harsh even to his close friends and daughter. She’s not exactly the main focus of the plot either. So do we sympathise with the demon Molasar in this case, the evil spirit waiting to be unleashed from his tomb? It’s a puzzling scenario which isn’t helped by a rambling narrative that never knows which direction to go.

So despite the muddled script, it’s to Mann’s credit that he manages to keep The Keep so gripping. I can’t put my finger on it because there’s not a lot of action, many scenes lack dialogue and rely on imagery and audio alone and there are too many plot holes lying around which throw you off track. But there is something that prevents you from switching off. The Keep is like few horror films I’ve ever seen before in that watching is almost like experiencing the keep for yourself. It’s a visually impressive film, with some fantastic cinematography, striking imagery and a superbly ominous atmosphere assisted by a creepy and haunting soundtrack. The dimly-lit, smoke-shrouded sets are the stuff of bad dreams. One particular scene featuring Gabriel Byrne’s SS commander staggering around a large room full of his dead soldiers is one of the most nightmare-inducing scenes I’ve seen. The first appearance of Molasar, the evil presence, is impressive, with the creature being made up of smoke and lights and backed by chilling music. The synthetic score by Tangerine Dream goes against the grain when it comes to soundtracks: it’s not there to accompany the scenes with music cues but rather act as an extension of the mood, acting as ambient noise. It’s a superb soundtrack though one which isn’t readily available to purchase.

I’ll say one thing for Mann and that’s he always assembles a fantastic cast. Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne, Scott Glen, Robert Prosky (you may not recognise the name but you’ll recognise the face) and Jürgen Prochnow are all on hand. It’s a male-heavy film as the nature of the war setting naturally calls for. I’m sure if this was remade nowadays, there’d be a female SS commander or something similar. Byrne is the evil Nazi, Prochnow the more reasonable one, Prosky a local priest and Glen is the Van Helsing-like hunter. Most of them are wasted in the roles but at least they add some much-needed star power. One appearance I chuckled at is that of German actor Wolf Kahler as some lowly SS soldier who has a brief cameo role. He’s been demoted since his face was melted away in Raiders of the Lost Ark!

The Keep is a genre from which Mann never returned to and it’s a pity. Whilst this is largely an incoherent mess of ideas, its potential is breath taking and the surreal atmosphere and art house audio and visuals will leave an indelible mark upon you. Stylish but unsatisfying, it would have been interesting to see Mann’s three-hour director’s cut of the film and whether that just prolonged the confusion or sorted it out.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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