Little seen Dennis Hopper and Asia Argento thriller The Keeper is a cult movie in the making

Director William Wyler’s 1965 thriller The Collector set the template for the female-in-forced-confinement two-hander, the likes of which wormed its way it the downmarket exploitation film industry, amping up the sex and violence while putting the focus less on the unnerving social and sexual dynamic and more on gratuitous – and let’s be honest, pretty revolting – female suffering. But there have been a myriad high quality and intelligent shockers that traded in this post-Collector riffing, chiefly stuff like Bob Brooks’ Tattoo, Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena and of course, Silence of the Lambs and all the imitators that followed it.

Director Paul Lynch’s 2004 cable psychodrama The Keeper is a curious thing, nestled somewhere between gutter trash, TV movie of the week and respectable high-gloss horror movie. And what it lacks in budget and balls, it makes up for in the sheer novelty of its casting and deranged narrative. See, The Keeper was made by now-defunct Canadian production house Peace Arch Films for the Showtime network. Peace Arch was, for a brief moment, a kind of Northern direct-to-video AIP, pumping out low-grade tax rebate romps with well-known American actors, spending decent amounts of money to ensure their product had a shot at “making it” in the international marketplace. The Keeper is a prime example of the Peace Arch wave as it’s well-produced, professionally shot and edited at a brisk clip and it does indeed feature well-known actors on the semi-decline who, while no doubt taking a pay check, are also clearly relishing the luxury of a leading role.

For horror fans, The Keeper is a rather interesting bauble. It stars the late, great Dennis Hopper and now-controversial and scandalized (the scandal in question is not mine to comment on, I’m here to talk about the art not the tabloid lives of the artist) Italian actress and filmmaker and daughter of Dario, Asia Argento, both of whom appeared together in George A. Romero’s Toronto-shot 2005 chiller Land of the Dead. I presume that the Peace Arch team nabbed them at a reasonable cost for this Canadian quickie since they were already up here. And while seeing both these totally opposing performers bounce off each other and devour scenery might have been a fun distraction in 2004, the casting – with Hopper no longer with us – makes The Keeper a genuine cult movie in the making, ripe for discovery. Throw in The Believers actress Helen Shaver as a serial killer hag and a director who made the seminal Canadian slasher movie Prom Night and how can any lover of oddball cinema resist?

Argento stars as Gina, a stripper just rolling through town who, after escaping an attempted rape, is “rescued” by local Sheriff Krebs (Hopper). Said cop is actually a full-blown lunatic who has a nasty habit of kidnapping troubled women he deems morally sullied, locking them in his basement dungeon and attempting to “correct” them. Gina is a tough lady however and she bucks his self-righteous psycho-trip at every turn, which makes us admire her spunk but question her foresight seeing as she ends up locked in that prison for months on end, with every attempt at escape foiled.

But that generic set up is only the basic thrust of The Keeper. What makes it so perversely watchable is the fact that Sheriff Krebs is also a children’s TV host and becomes such in his off time when he’s not tormenting poor Argento, leading to the appearance of Shaver’s aforementioned groupie, a woman whose mania even Hopper seems freaked out by (incidentally, Shaver is still looking rather fine here, though she’s well into middle age). The end sequences of clumsy pursuit and Hopper finally losing his mind full stop are outrageously, awesomely tacky and push the already unstable film right off of a cliff. And I mean that in a good way.

Hopper – one of the founding fathers of bad-boy, post-60s indie filmmaking and one of cinemas greatest dangerous eccentrics – is fantastic here, though he was near the end of his days and was simply working to indulge his art-collecting habit and pay the bills. He’s not an off-the-wall evil cartoon like his Frank Booth was in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, nor is he the heroic basket-case lawman he was in Tobe Hooper’s bonkers The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. He’ s got a mature, squinty and totally controlled kind of madness here, making his Krebs likable (he IS a kids TV star after all) and even reasonable, despite his penchant for pious torture and murder. Argento looks wasted (though she always sports that kind of junkie-chic appearance) and that adds to the urgency of her character’s frantic plight. With her Italian accent she seems kind of awkward in her line readings but hey, Gerald Sanford’s script aint that great to begin with, so she does what she can with it. But Argento is primarily a physical actress and she uses that strength to give Gina a bona fide presence. And no, in case you wondered, despite her character’s pole-spiraling profession, she does not remove her clothes.

The Keeper is junk, sure. But it’s sublime and strange and hugely entertaining junk and kind of floats in its own awesomely tacky orbit. It’s hard to see but it was released on DVD back in 2006 and if you seek it, you may find it. For fans of Hopper and Argento, it’s an essential curiosity.

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