A look back on a mythical, misunderstood Michael Mann masterwork
When it comes to dark fantasy and horror filmmaking, I am and always will be a strong advocate for anti-realism, which is to say I prefer my terrors to exist in a dream state, free of the pretentious shackles of narrative logic, existing in a world that is but a hazy impression of the mundane one in which we live. I appreciate films that freely lapse into that sort of nightmare logic where nothing makes sense, nothing is absolute and anything can – and usually does – happen.
This is also why I’ve always been a strong champion of Michael Mann’s evocative, absurd, flawed and occasionally transcendent 1983 cinematic adaptation of author F. Paul Wilson’s terrifying novel THE KEEP, a movie that was cut upon its release by a nervous studio, ignored by audiences, deplored by critics, rejected by its source scribe and generally forgotten. Though the ensuing years have seen it accumulate a quiet cult following, the movie is still, as of this writing, legitimately unavailable on domestic DVD or Blu-ray.
In the darkest days of WW2 a wayward band of SS troops, led by the sympathetic Captain Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow of DAS BOOT) find themselves snaking around Romania, specifically a remote, fog drenched village in the midst of a mountain pass. On the outskirts of this village sits a monolithic fortress, a “Keep”, a shrine of sorts that the locals insist houses an ancient evil, and one that the Nazis choose to set up their stronghold.
Against the conflicted Woermann’s wishes, the greedy Third Reich droogs begin secretly prying off the protective silver crosses that line the walls and, in an especially eerie sequence, unleash a pulsing, chasm dwelling, sentient white light that promptly separates one unlucky storm trooper’s noggin from his neck. As even more of the men begin to meet their strange, untimely demises, grim reinforcements in the form of the ultra sadistic Major Kaempffer (a chilling Gabriel Byrne) and his troupe roll into town, casually laying waste to the innocent villagers and enlisting an old, wheelchair bound Jewish professor named Dr. Theodore Cuza (the great Ian McKellen) to aid them in deciphering the cryptic, possibly Hebrew scrawl on the walls left after each kill.
As Cuza soon discovers, the Nazi scum have indeed unleashed absolute evil in the form of a slowly evolving, muscle necked demon named Molasar (Michael Carter), a force of darkness that was imprisoned inside the Keep centuries prior and with apparently very good reason. As the body count increases and a wave of madness and corruption oozes over the previously peaceful village, across the ocean a loner named Glaeken (Scott Glenn) is also drawn to the Keep, armed with a glowing staff, a chip the size of Gibraltar on his immortal shoulder, and a blind, instinctual drive to put the horrific Molasar back into his stony grave once and for all.
When THE KEEP was released in 1983, Mann was already a filmmaker of some note, having both written and directed the slicker than slick 1981 James Caan thriller Thief (he was still a year shy of the brilliant MIAMI VICE, an amazing, ahead of its time TV show that I still swear by) and Wilson’s skin crawling best seller had already found its way to paperback. Almost immediately it became clear that fans of that book were up in arms by Mann’s big screen stab at the story. Chief among their many gripes was the fact that Molasar had been inexplicably altered from a bloodsucking ageless vampire into a hulking skull faced prosthetic brute with laser beam eyes. Wilson himself was aghast, not only by the picture’s many changes but also because of its disjointed tone and improper pacing; the author went as far as to publicly denounce THE KEEP as an “incomprehensible mess”.
Why the explicit vampirism angle was excised is anybody’s guess; perhaps it was due to the fact that in the early 80’s Hollywood vampirism had, as it does every so often, burned out its popularity coil. The only other vampire film of 1983, THE HUNGER also betrayed its source novel (by Whitley Strieber, respectively) by keeping its fangs similarly in check, emphasizing slick visuals and art directed sex over traditional undead thrills (and, like THE KEEP, that film is an underappreciated masterpiece of style and dread). It’s very possible that the good folks at Paramount persuaded Mann to give the blood sucking a break and tailor the tale to the glossier, less earthy, increasingly synthetic MTV driven decade. As for the admittedly jarring jumps in logic and plot, rumor has it that Mann’s final cut of the film was almost three hours long and the studio simply opted to shave it down to smithereens for cynical, practical exhibition purposes.
Now, I’m painfully aware of the source novel deviations: I loved the book too. But what some people fail to grasp is that what works on page, doesn’t necessarily work on screen, one being a literary medium, the other being primarily visual and sensory, and perhaps the changes were warranted. Not only that, but the passage of time has proven Michael Mann to be an auteur, a stylist with a creative pallet completely unique to him and no one else. Looking back on THE KEEP today, we can see a young filmmaker experimenting, finding, and perfecting, his visual and tonal vocabulary simply using the Wilson novel as a framing device. Blue lights streaming though broken windows, slow pans across fog-soaked landscapes, outlandish, borderline ridiculous and otherworldly character behaviors and a sense of thick, oppressive and unwavering tension; they’re all here in their early 80’s glory. Who gives a damn if they aren’t in the novel? The book has its own charms. But one thing it does NOT have is a score by Tangerine Dream…
Lets address that. Tangerine Dream. A collective of German experimental electronic musicians that had previously laid down hypnotic cinematic soundscapes for William Fredkin’s SORCERER, Michael Laughlin’s STRANGE BEHAVIOR, Mann’s own, aforementioned film noir THIEF and would later sculpt deft music for the American cut of Ridley Scott’s LEGEND and Kathryn Bigelow’s similarly revisionist vampire tale NEAR DARK. Their efforts on THE KEEP are like aural glue, an endless wave of thick analog synth music that, even when inappropriate (as in that scene where the soldiers chisel the beautifully detailed silver cross off the keep’s wall) gel the film together, becoming as vital to the identity of the movie as the sets, the suffocating mists, the top notch cast and the goofy looking yet imposing and ultimately effective Molasar himself.
In fact, if you’re a fan of the works of German art house director Werner Herzog (which I most certainly am) you’ll see incredible, perhaps intentional, perhaps not, parallels between Mann’s work with Tangerine Dream here and Herzog’s collaborations with composer Florian Fricke, aka Popul Vuh. The slow, meditative sequence where Glaeken’s ship crosses the ocean is eerily akin the scene where Dracula’s ghost ship drifts the high seas in Herzog’s influential 1979 remake of NOSFERATU and the opening images of the fog shrouded, mountain sealed Romanian village look and sound like they were pulled wholesale out of Herzog’s breathtaking 1972 historical psychodrama AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD.
However you see THE KEEP, the bottom line is to just see it. It is a film of many sensory pleasures and the key to truly enjoying it is to overlook its flaws, its lapses in logic, its often-dated visual effects and let it simply wash over you, to sink into it and perceive it like an opium inflicted hallucination. If nothing else, THE KEEP most certainly makes a case for the horror film as an outlet for subconscious art, as a surreal dark dream, as an experience that you react to not intellectually, but physically and emotionally.