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.