I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Keep

tn_thekeepI still intend to review all of Michael Mann’s movies in chronological order. I haven’t gotten very far, but the one I’m on, THE KEEP, happens to be Halloween appropriate.

Other than its beautiful craftsmanship, this is completely unlike what we associate with a Mann film. Usually he looks for a higher level of realism than most movies, and to be very up-to-date with the technology and trends of the time. THE KEEP doesn’t do any of those things because it’s a weird, atmospheric horror movie set during WWII.

It concerns a group of German soldiers occupying an ancient stone fortress in Romania that seems to be haunted or something. Father Fonescu (Robert Prosky, LAST ACTION HERO, EYE SEE YOU), the priest and caretaker, warns them not to touch the nickel and silver crosses inlayed in the walls, but a couple of them try to steal one anyway. Behind it is a hole and when one of the looters peeks his head into the dark void something takes away the top half of his body.

Believing they’re under attack by “partisans,” but also wanting to know if there’s anything valuable inside that citadel, an SS commander (Gabriel Byrne, END OF DAYS, COOL WORLD) kills some of the locals and pressures the Father to translate some writing on a wall. He can’t read it and convinces them they’ll need a professor of medieval history he knows of who is currently “wherever you take the Jews.”

mp_thekeepDr. Theodore Cuza is played by Ian McKellen (also from LAST ACTION HERO), in a fedora like Magneto and a wheelchair like Professor X. Accompanied by his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson, THE LOOKOUT), he tries to solve the mystery while the priest plots to smuggle him out and a sympathetic non-Nazi soldier (Jurgen Prochnow, JUDGE DREDD, BEVERLY HILLS COP II) tries to shield them from harm.

There’s a real strong foreboding mood created by a mix of foggy landscapes, Tangerine Dream score and the situation of being trapped inside a giant block of stone with both an unknown force of evil and a known one. Something about the feel of it reminded me of ALIEN at the beginning, but it turns out to be more PROMETHEUS in its depiction of the god-like being reconstructing himself inside the keep. At first he’s a cloud, then a brain and set of eyes glowing from inside a cloud, eventually a towering, thick-necked being the style of Thanos or Apocalypse, with eyes and mouth that glow red. Like in LIFEFORCE he sucks people’s souls via lightning bolts leaking out of their eyes. I didn’t know there were any movies that could remind me of LIFEFORCE!

By the way, it is important to note that this entity is played by Michael Carter, who was Bib Fortuna in RETURN OF THE JEDI. He doesn’t have to suck up to no vile gangster in this one.

I know I heard about this from some of the commenters here, but I’d completely forgotten about it – when McKellen first showed up I thought “wow, he’s been an old man for 35 years!” Later, of course, exposure to the keep-dweller turns him younger and makes him walk again. So they did a great job of predicting what he was gonna look like when he was older. Either that or he’s just so proud of this movie that he made sure to age the same as the makeup they gave him in it.

What gets real interesting is when Dr. Cuza learns of this guy and decides only a power like this can stop the Nazis. He’s seen the camps, he knows what goes on, so he’ll do anything to stop them, even unleash an inexplicable supernatural or alien power onto the earth. (Magneto would do the same.) If this is a parable it’s gotta be for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The idea of fighting one unprecedented terror with another one.

That’s not all the weirdness! There’s also Scott Glenn (SUCKER PUNCH) as a mysterious stranger who drifts in on a motorcycle and makes sweet love to Eva after we already saw that sometimes his eyes glow white. Like in THE TERMINATOR or I COME IN PEACE he’s the good mysterious being who has come to stop the bad mysterious being. And it would be hard to cast a guy more physically perfect for the role. He’d also make a good angel or robot.

Of course it gets very mystical and psychedelic and what not, glowing mouths and weapons and energy and standing in giant sets representing painterly landscapes. I like reality-shifting shots like when the soldier sticks his head into the void and the camera slowly pulls back further and further and further until he’s so far away he looks like a little star in the sky. That keep is bigger on the inside than the outside.

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I honestly thought this was gonna be a movie about a ghostly presence, I had no idea how beautifully outlandish it would get, or that these type of sci-fi novel/comic book god beings had ever been depicted on film like this. After finally watching this on the pan & scan VHS tape I figured the fact that this has not gotten a special edition Blu-Ray from Scream Factory meant the rights simply are not available. I guess I wasn’t completely surprised when I read that the movie was very compromised, with no Mann-approved version really possible.

The trouble started during post-production when visual effects supervisor Wally Veevers (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) died. He’d shot all kinds of footage that couldn’t be used because no one knew how he’d intended to composite it together. Because of this they had to scrap an ending where the two beings battle on top of the keep and are sucked into a portal, and a scene where the being explodes the Nazis! I think we missed out by not getting to see that.

Mann had a cut of the movie that was 210 minutes, more than twice the length of the released version (96 minutes). But rough cuts are always too long, so I wouldn’t assume that’s the definitive running time. Mann whittled it down to a contractually obligated 2 hours, and that’s when the studio interfered and cut it 24 minutes shorter against his wishes.

That’s a bad thing, but I would argue maybe not as disastrous as people say. The purported incomprehensibility is part of what I enjoyed about the movie. A longer version might explain who Scott Glenn is and what he’s up to; I like that we don’t know. We’re just humans witnessing a war between powers beyond our understanding. He shows up and his eyes glow and he takes care of business. Leaving it a mystery is so much cooler than explaining that he’s Captain Xippxox from the Equinox Dimension waging an ancient battle against the rogue demon prince Galdorn.

(Actually I just looked it up and it seems he’s an immortal called Glaeken who fights for the Forces of Light against Molasar, a.k.a. Rasalom, a sorcerer from the First Age. I’m glad I didn’t pick up any of that in the movie. That’s what reading Wikipedia afterwards is for.)

Obviously the intention of shortening it was to make it more commercial. Didn’t work. In December of 1983 it opened against the following movies that made more money that weekend: SILKWOOD, GORKY PARK, THE MAN WHO LOVED WOMEN, D.C. CAB, a re-release of THE RESCUERS, UNCOMMON VALOR and TWO OF A KIND. Also it was below the previous week’s releases CHRISTINE, YENTL, SCARFACE and SUDDEN IMPACT, as well as the fourth week of TERMS OF ENDEARMENT.

A widescreen version of the movie does apparently exist, because it was released on laser disc, and possibly this transfer is what’s available on Amazon and other streaming services. Allegedly some or most streaming versions have some or all of Tangerine Dream’s music replaced due to rights issues. (If anyone knows what is the best legally available version let me know in the comments.)

Man, it’s like this movie is cursed by some ancient being with a glowing red mouth. It just can’t get a break. But I think even in this disfigured, incomplete form it’s something special.

So keep on KEEPin on, my friends.

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VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 11th, 2016 at 10:39 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

15 Responses to “The Keep”

  1. my favorite part of the story of the Keep — I don’t remember if it’s in the movie but it is in the book — is how the alien force goes by Molasar which is its real name but backwards. Like it’s a disguise? Except no one has ever heard of Rasalom to begin with because he’s from before recorded history? The only guy that know the name Rasalom is the ancient immortal tasked with destroying him and THAT guy isn’t going to be fooled by just writing the name backwards.

    In conclusion, the Keep was good but weird.

  2. Great piece on a very flawed film that I nevertheless always come back to – however, F. Paul Wilson’s original book is so, so, so much better. Saying that, Wilson’s graphic novel, which was his attempt to visualise his story the way he’d have preferred it (he HATED Mann’s film) is a disappointment. The widescreen version has been screened in the UK on FilmFour, and I think that’s the same version that’s playing on UK Netflix – as far as I’m aware the Tangerine Dream score hasn’t been messed with.

  3. The widescreen version with Tangerine Dream intact is what they have on Netflix, I can confirm.

  4. Hooray for continuing the Michael Mann retrospective! Like Fletcher said a couple comments above, great piece on a flawed film. I’m a huge Mann devotee, so I wish I appreciated this thing’s incomprehensibility as much as you, but to me it feels like more missed opportunity than misunderstood. Looking forward to the review of Manhunter though (even if it takes another year and three months).

  5. Great film. Well, is it really great? I don’t know. I like it anyway. I remember seeing this in 1986 on video and being hooked, i always liked the mix of the supernatural and Nazis so this was right up my alley. I was 10 at the time, so i shouldn’t really have been watching it. Anyway, i loved it then, and i still love it now even though i know it’s hugely flawed. I’d agree that it’s possibly more enjoyable having less information about who the characters are and so on. I read the book a little while later and Molasar is just a vampire basically, as far as i remember. It’s much less mysterious. Well, i could be wrong, but it’s almost 30 years since i read it. Anyway, cool film and Mann should acknowledge it a little more than he does. There’s a documentary being made about it at the moment, some folks have been crowdfunding it. It’s called A World War II Fairytale: The Making of Michael Mann’s The Keep and it has a Facebook page in case anyone is interested in knowing more about it.

  6. I was too young to be allowed to watch this when my Pops brought home the CIC-TAFT vhs, and I still haven’t seen it. Hopefully this crowd-funding doco thing will help it find a distributor. And I am looking forward to your review Vern of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS in 3 years and 9 months! (And us HEAT worshippers best be patient motherfuckers, or find another hobby in the meantime!). They will be worth the wait, no doubt.

  7. A MANHUNTER review would probably be appropriate for Halloween too.

    I’ve not seen this one and all I’ve read about it hasn’t exactly enthused me to, either. I’d love to see Mann do a sci-fi, infused with the heightened realism so much of his work is known for.

  8. I caught this on TV once back in the 00’s, I’m pretty sure it was the original version though it wasn’t widescreen.

    I always liked the idea of this ancient, unfathomable evil being taken aback by just how evil these Nazis are.

    Pity there’s still no special edition blu ray or something.

  9. I tried to get hold of the soundtrack a few years ago and got a peek into the murky world of TANGERINE DREAM superfandom. Not only are there multiple bootlegs of the score, all claiming to be “definitive” and all containing totally different music, but the only “official” release, from the band themselves, was a “limited edition” costing over 80 bucks. Apparently they pulled a lot of mercenary dickmoves in their later years…

  10. Besides LORD OF THE RINGS, this is the other film in which a black-and-red demon wants to cross a bridge and a white wizard won’t let him.

  11. When I was but a wee lad, I had set something to record on my VCR late at night, but I didn’t have the time right, and ended up recording the last ten minutes of the movie before what I wanted to watch. But it was the last ten minutes of The Keep, and I became fascinated with the imagery from the end. But I never managed to catch it again and had forgotten about it until the very tale end of the US Netflix run a few years ago. Kind of a mess of a movie, but it’s watchable as hell. And I believe it had the Tangerine Dream score, too, which was rad.

  12. Didn’t know the demon was supposed to be using its name backwards as a disguise. That’s funny. From what I remember, it seems like Scott Glenn is onto him five minutes after he re-constitutes in the castle, so maybe he should have gone with a fake moustache or dark glasses?

    I remember this having effective moments rather than being a cohesive whole; McKellen striding along a tunnel with some sort of magic key, I think, while the silver crosses blaze, sticks in my mind.

  13. Glad you saw it Vern! Great flick.

  14. I know we’ve got a few Mann movies to get through (and Intruder, thanks Sternshein! :)) before we get to it, but I just have to say that THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS looks extraordinary on bluray. I’d been avoiding it because it’s the Directors Cut, and I didn’t want my love for the film to be ruined by any extreme changes, but it all seems nicely integrated. There’s an additional six minutes of footage, but I’ll be fucked if I know what’s new. I noticed some Enya type music leading up to the final cliff side battle, which I didn’t care for so much, but then that driving score I love (and listen to often on the soundtrack cd) is retained for when the tomahawks and knives start flying.

    It’s still my favorite Mann film.

  15. Speaking of Blu-ray, Mann’s new cut of ALI is coming out next month. Unless the running time is a mistake, it’s a little shorter than it’s previous cuts so that should be interesting to see how it turns out. The disc also has extra footage of the man himself with Michael and Will Smith.

    And it looks like the new 4K remaster of HEAT is coming out in February. I hope to God it gets some kind of limited national theatrical release, I’d love to see and hear it on a big system.

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