Friday, December 14, 2012

The Films of 1983: The Keep

One of the glories of film as an art form involves its capacity to forge a powerful mood or “feeling” outside or beyond strict narrative parameters.  This sense of atmosphere can be created through a combination of editing montage, musical soundtrack, and even pacing.

In other words, if the resultant overall mood of a film is potent enough, the moment-to-moment specifics of a movie’s plot don’t matter that much.  Viewers can get carried away not in specific details, but in strong emotional resonances.

This is especially so in the horror genre, in which a well-realized vision or “atmosphere” can, eerily, mirror our universal sense of dreaming, or our experience of a nightmare. 

In 1983 -- when I was thirteen -- I first saw in theaters a new horror film that, on a purely plot level, indeed seemed ludicrous and poorly constructed.  But the visuals were so charged with spiky energy, the editing and music so utterly mesmerizing, that the film became something of a favorite with me.  If my mind reeled at the silliness of the story and the banality of the dialogue, it also responded enthusiastically to the deft, unconventional visualization of the tale.

That film is Michael Mann’s The Keep, based ever so loosely on the popular novel by F. Paul Wilson.  That author, I suspect, has ample reason to complain about how his literary work was translated to the silver screen. 

And yet for all its notable flaws in terms of narrative clarity, dialogue, and character development, the film version of The Keep is inarguably hypnotic, even mesmerizing.  Supported by a stunning electronic score from Tangerine Dream, and an almost early-MTV music-video sensibility in some key action sequences, this film plays like a surreal dream turned into a wild, epic opera.

Again, The Keep is not without faults, notably including the design and make-up for the central monster, Molasar.  Instead of appearing fearsome and frightening, he looks like a man in a bad rubber suit, with red glowing eyes.  So there is ample reason to criticize The Keep, if that’s the game. 

But if one chooses to engage with The Keep on its own strange, unconventional terms, the film casts a remarkable trance-like power that I find, well, irresistible.  In the film, those individuals who take refuge and sanctuary in the remote, titular Keep  are swept away by bizarre, frightening dreams that seem to reshape reality itself. 

Mann’s film actually expresses that very idea in its DNA, revealing in all its idiosyncratic glory a dream world of dark and light, good and evil, right and wrong.  The film casts a spell that sweeps you away, even if you don’t always understand the story, what motivates the characters, or why things are happening.

One can certainly argue that a more straightforward approach might have made for a better or perhaps more easily digestible film, but Mann’s oddball, emotional approach here certainly gets at the true nature of the story he vets.  We experience “the dream” of the Keep as the characters in the play do the same. And as I like to write frequently, there’s something to be said for a film’s form mirroring its content.

During World War II, a Nazi caravan led by Captain Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) arrives in a small town in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. There, Woermann reluctantly takes command of his new headquarters:  an ancient Keep decorated with one-hundred-and-eight small crosses made of nickel.

The caretaker of the Keep (Morgan Sheppard) warns Woermann and his soldiers not to remain in the Keep, because they will suffer horrible nightmares if they sleep within the walls of the mountain fortress.

His warnings go ignored, however, and soldiers instead attempt to loot the Keep, removing a thick rock from an underlying structure and finding a passageway into the heart of the mountain itself, into a vast, seemly empty chamber.

In truth, the Nazis have actually released a ferocious and ancient evil force.  When five soldiers are murdered under mysterious circumstances in the Keep following the breach of the mountain, a new, harsher Nazi commander, Koempferr (Gabriel Byrne) arrives and imposes draconian law on the nearby village.

But meanwhile, far away in Athens, a mysterious stranger called Glaeken (Scott Glenn) heads for the Keep, even as a Jewish scientist, Dr. Duza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Albert Watson) are transported there from a death camp to translate a message scrawled on the wall of the fortress. 

It reads: “I Will Be Free.”

Suffering from a debilitating disease and knowing that the end of his life is near, Dr. Cuza comes to realize that the monster in the Keep -- Molasar -- can strike a blow against Nazi power around the world if only he can be released from this ancient structure, his prison.

But is Cuza’s plan to release True Evil actually worse than the evil unleashed by the Nazis?

From a visual standpoint, The Keep is an incredibly dynamic film, even when viewed in 2012.  The most impressive and memorable shot, in my opinion, involves the initial breaching of the mountain interior. 

A Nazi soldier pushes away a rock, and Mann treats the audience to what could be the longest, most dramatic pull-back in film movie history, at least pre-CGI.  Star Trek: First Contact (1996) boasted a corollary, although digitally-rendered, in its opening scene on a Borg cube. 

But here, we pull back and back and back…for a seeming eternity, through impenetrable shades of darkness, until we reach a distant cave floor.  And then the shot extends further yet, escorting audiences through what appears to be an ancient rock-hewn temple.  In the far, upper right corner of the frame, we can see where we began the shot: a Nazi soldier gazing out upon a stone precipice, and an open interior space of terror yawning before him.

It’s a gorgeous, masterfully-created composition that expresses beautifully the nature and setting of Molasar’s imprisonment.  The shot suggests a scale beyond our human ability to conceive, as if we are opening up into another realm of Hell itself. 

The film’s opening sequence is equally masterful, and it adroitly sets the tenor for the dream-like quality of the film’s remainder.  The Nazi caravan drives through mist-enshrouded mountains on a small, winding road, and the local figures move through the fairy tale landscape in slow-motion.

Extreme close-ups of Prochnow’s wide-eyes also suggest the idea of a percipient awakening (or perhaps falling asleep…), and piercing a barrier into a new, unexpected realm.  It’s as though the caravan has breached the wall separating reality and nightmare, real-scape and dream-scape.

When I reviewed The Keep in Horror Films of the 1980s, I noted that these misty, expressive visualizations, augmented by Tangerine Dream’s compositions, can make enraptured viewers feel as though they’ve tumbled down the rabbit hole into a universe of the strange and surreal.  That observation is just as true today. 

The first time we meet Molasar, the visuals are impressive too.  We don’t see the (inferior) costume/make-up, but rather a roiling, tornado or storm moving purposefully through the stone corridors of the Keep.  Smoke rises and falls, billows and rolls, coruscating and affording us only glimpses of the monster’s true nature.  Once more this scene suggests a kind of dream-like quality, of monsters perceived but not quite seen or understood.

 The novel upon which The Keep is based was more overtly a vampire story than the movie is, but one can detect the outer edges of a vampire story in this weird and wonderful film.  Yet Mann has escaped and avoided silver screen vampire clichés by positioning his “monster” inside the world of dreams and half-understood visions.  The unexpected use of neon lasers, slow-motion photography, and music-video-style cutting also subverts expectation about what a “vampire movie” can be, or how it should look.

If the film boasts any specific disappointment beyond the revelation of Molasar’s true character, it arises from a lack of exposition about Glaeken, the immortal vampire killer who has waited a seeming eternity for Molasar to awake so he can fulfill his duty as slayer.   

Memorably, Glaeken makes love to a human woman, Eva, in a beautiful but patently weird sequence that is as much as about religious apotheosis (notice the lovers in the form of the cross…) as it is about sexual fulfillment. 

But beyond his capacity to love Eva and destroy Evil, we know almost nothing about Glaeken, or what he “is,” human or otherwise.  That established, Scott Glenn looks absolutely stunning in the role: a glowing-eyed, perfectly-muscled physical embodiment of the divine in man’s body.

The most satisfying thematic element in The Keep perhaps involves Dr. Cuza.  He’s a man who hates the Nazis so much that he releases a monster several magnitudes worse to destroy them.  His hatred has thus blinded him in a very significant way.  The lesson there is that hate doesn’t make one strong, but rather weak…and that wanting to see your enemy destroyed so badly may in fact only perpetuate a greater evil.

Ultimately, how much you enjoy The Keep may be determined by how much reality,  you demand of your horror movies.

If you desire to see expressed a strict, Euclidian “sense” of reality, I suppose the film is something of a bust. 

But if you are willing to be swept away -- like Eva in Molasar’s arms, carried through the ancient corridors of the stone castle  -- by Michael Mann’s unconventional “dream sense,” The Keep is a singular and stunning viewing experience.  It remains one of the most bizarre and memorable films of 1983.  Furthermore, The Keep is one of those movies I can return to again and again, and always see something new -- and beautiful -- in.  


  1. There is much to like in this film, but there are so many flaws. Apparently it was supposed to be much longer, which would explain the plot holes and lack of character development. Rumor has it that it's to be restored for DVD, but so far there's been no confirmation. In the past I usually saw the film before reading the book, but this time I read the book first. True it's more straight forward, but I found it really frightening and it was easier to care about the characters.

  2. Excellent look at this film, John. It is a weird, big ol' mess of a film but a fascinating one nonetheless. Nothing else in Mann's filmography resembles this film. Sure, MANHUNTER has a few stylistic elements but that's about it. I think the troubled production and its lackluster reception scared Mann off of doing anything like this again. In some respects this is his DUNE. He rarely talks about it in interviews and seems to have no desire to revisit it on home video. A pretty good transfer (widescreen no less) has been streaming on Netflix for awhile.

  3. It took me close to a decade to finally warm to this one. My original reaction to it (on VHS in the '80s) was a lot like my initial reaction to many of David Lynch's movies -- I resisted it, insisting that it meet ME halfway instead of the other way around, unwilling to deal with its lack of conventional "sense." But (like Lynch) it needed to time to implant and gestate. I didn't "like" it but I couldn't stop thinking about it. When I bought a laserdisc player in the mid-90s (just in time to see the format killed by DVD!), THE KEEP was one of the first discs I purchased. It's been a favorite ever since. Once I unpuckered and just went with it's hypnotic visuals and dream-illogic I've come to really enjoy it. And I love Tangerine Dream, so it always had that going for it at least.

    Having said that, I agree with you about Glaeken. The character is so ill-explained (even by the standards of fuzzy dream narrative) that he comes across almost as an arbitrary deus ex machina. He has no life or motivation outside of his purpose as a plot-resolution device. He's not just mysterious -- he's downright cryptic (and not in a good way). Oh, well.

    A DVD release has been rumored off and on since the early days of the format, but no luck yet. I'm hoping some independent company like Shout Factory (who's done awesome work on THEY LIVE and who just announced LIFEFORE and THE FOG for 2013!) will get the rights and put out a Blu-ray at some point. Fingers crossed.

  4. The Keep is inarguably one the top 10 Horror films of all time. An awesome piece of German expressionism in color, and a near 2001 level of perfect visual/music mix. And there is nothing wrong with Big Daddy M's final appearance. Without question one of the top movie monsters ever. The Cloud Molasar/Gloria sequence only cements this one as one of the best.

    And if Mann is the reason it has not returned to the home market, he better not cross my path. I'll treat him like Jerry Sandusky in gen pop.

  5. Anonymous1:27 PM

    John excellent review of THE KEEP. I agree. Ever since I saw this film in 1983 it has never been forgotten.


  6. Mann is one of my favorite 2 or 3 directors. Between 'Thief' Miami Vice, Manhunter, and Crime Story', Mann's mix of visuals and use of syn-pop in his productions was a 1980's hallmark. Though I'm not sure on J.D. Lafrance's opinion that Mann was scared off from horror. I just think that some directors know their strengths, and drama, not horror is clearly Mann's acumen.

  7. I saw this movie on Netflix Instant a little while ago and was thrilled. Its strangeness is its chief virtue, I think. It's almost like it was transmitted from an alien planet. It's definitely one of the top midnight movies, and the Tangerine Dream score locates it in the early 80s Blade Runner era - a very tender movie age for me.

  8. I've never seen this one, and have only been dimly aware of it -- somehow it slipped past my radar back in the '80s -- but your defense of it based on its atmosphere reminds me of why I defend Highlander, another film based on a frankly weird premise that's easy to pick apart if you really want to, but which completely seduces me because of the feel of it. Interestingly, based on the trailer you posted, it appears to me that Highlander and The Keep share a similar look, kind of a mixture of slick music-video lighting and editing, and a gritty, grungy visual quality (possibly due to the film stock of the mid '80s?). The influence of early MTV is pretty obvious... anyhow, I'm going to have to look this one up... thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  9. Anonymous5:06 PM

    Molasar is made of living Stone,bad rubber suit is what a wimpy dumb could be perceive


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