Tag Archives: Demon

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE KEEP (1983)

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DIRECTED BY: Michael Mann

FEATURING: Scott Glenn, Ian McKellen, Alberta Watson, Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT: A Nazi regiment unwisely establishes a base inside the keep of a Romanian castle where an otherworldly beast has been imprisoned for the safety of humanity.

Still from The Keep (1983)

COMMENTS: Wanting to cleanse my palette after my last encounter with Nazis, I figured it would be fun to watch them get slaughtered by a supernatural force even more evil than themselves. What I forgot to reckon with was Michael Mann, a man who walks eagerly into grey spaces. To be clear, dead Nazis haven’t lost their appeal. It’s just that no one comes out of The Keep smelling like a rose. 

Mann has always been interested in the bad things that decent people do in defense of some greater good, usually accompanied by moody visuals and moodier music. In that sense, The Keep fits right into his CV. We’ve got pure bad guys in the form of a Nazi platoon that sets up camp in a Carpathian castle, but the forces aligned against them are a disparate bunch: Molasar, an ancient demon trapped behind silver crosses and a talisman; the amazingly named Glaeken Trismegestus, a kind of knight-errant tasked with ensuring Molasar never emerges from this dark prison; and Dr. Cuza, a Jewish academic sprung from a concentration camp to help the Nazis translate ancient languages, who decides that freeing Molasar will save his people. So our bad guys are plenty bad, but the enemy of our enemy might not be our friend.

The stage is set for a real philosophical showdown, but  Paramount was looking for a horror-thriller, and when the production went way over budget, the studio declined to provide additional funds. To complicate things further, the visual effects supervisor died two weeks into post-production, leaving behind no instruction and no means of accomplishing the effects-heavy finale Mann intended. Finally, Mann turned in a cut nearly three and a half hours long, promptly getting himself thrown off the project. The studio hacked off about ninety minutes and, following a terrible preview, applied classic Hollywood logic and shaved off another thirty. The final product is, predictably, disjointed and open-ended, with characters appearing and disappearing randomly, a significantly truncated romance, and the entire thing wrapping up in a flurry of anticlimax. (Amusingly, an entire battalion of Nazis is wiped out while we’re watching their commander in another room.) It’s hard to argue that a horror film the length of The Godfather Part II is a good idea, but the shortened version is sorely lacking in some of the most critical areas, such as suspense, or clear linear progression.

The elements that work best in The Keep are the ones that go gleefully beyond the pale. Electronica pioneers Tangerine Dream provide a wonderfully anachronistic score that works despite itself. The production design by John Box and the art direction of Alan Tomkins and Herbert Westbrook are suitably evocative and foreboding. And best of all, the acting is top-notch baroque insanity. Byrne is relentlessly nasty in classic Nazi fashion, positioned opposite the war-weary pragmatism that Prochnow brings over undiluted from Das Boot (1981). McKellen uses the full power of his stage-acting experience, bellowing in a bizarre American accent (reportedly at Mann’s instigation) that eventually becomes a John Huston impression. Watson makes no impression at all. And then, in the role of the enigmatic stranger who is engaged in a millennia-old battle against evil, there’s affable everyman Scott Glenn. He’s horribly miscast, but somehow he gets far entirely on the basis of the asynchrony. The story may not make sense, but at least everyone goes for it.

The best thing that The Keep has going for it is its spectacle, and that suffers from being visibly undercut, far from the poetic grandeur its auteur intended. It’s hard to say if the film Mann had in mind–a blend of arty philosophy and purple grandiosity –would have worked. But it’s clear from what remains that it would have lacked for neither.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The Keep is a weird movie and I mean that in the best possible way. On the negative end of the spectrum, there are too many characters and the film is often muddled and slow-moving. However, if you stick with it, you will be rewarded with some rather fine monster-mashing and other assorted general nonsense.” Mitch Lovell, The Video Vacuum

(This movie was nominated for review by purplefig. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: LO (2009)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Travis Betz

FEATURING: Ward Roberts, Jeremiah Birkett, Sarah Lassez

PLOT: Justin uses a spell book to summon the infernal spirit Lo to help him see his dead girlfriend once again, but the demon uses every trick possible to avoid fulfilling the command.

Still from Lo (2009)

COMMENTS: There have been many movies about demonic possession, but few about demonic summoning… and no other, that I can think of, where almost the entire movie plays out from inside the safety of a pentagram. (Lo‘s closest competition for time spent inside a thaumaturgic circle might be Viy.) For the first five minutes we watch Justin, in a pitch black room lit solely by candles, painstakingly (if clumsily) construct this magical barrier, following the instructions etched on the yellowed parchment of an ancient grimoire, christening the ritual with his own blood. He then speaks the magic incantation and successfully summons the demon Lo, a pathetic yet powerful devil with a partly exposed brain and useless crushed legs which force him to painfully drag himself from out of the inky blackness towards his summoner, angry and defiant but unable to cross the enchanted barrier and devour Justin’s soul. The spell Justin cast compels a boon from this creature. You see, he saw a demon drag his girlfriend off to Hell, and now he wants her back—or at least to see her one last time. And Lo must meet Justin’s demand—although, in classic Mephistophelian fashion, the spirit isn’t above resorting to temptations, tricks, half-truths, and twisting Justin’s requests in any way he can.

The way Lo achieves its aesthetic aims on a minimal budget is nothing less than magical. Darkness is an ally; the set is a essentially black box, props are minimal, and only the demon costumes consume a significant amount of dollars. The flashbacks that supply the backstory are told through reenactments on a stage Lo conjures in Justin’s darkened apartment. There are red curtains, applause, visible stagehands, and comedy and tragedy masks that react to the proceedings. For additional color, Lo also summons a fuzzy green demon rat, a lizard-headed Nazi demon, a pair of damned silhouettes who press against a saran wrap wall as they describe the torments of Hell, and a couple of (mediocre, but welcome) musical numbers.

The story advances almost entirely through the antagonistic dialogues of the demon and his summoner. Chances are good that you will guess the twist ending early on; but it’s such a perfect construct that it doesn’t detract from the poignancy of the reveal. Who can’t relate to falling in love with the wrong person, a love that might be mutual and true, but which fate and circumstance dictates must be temporary? And who can’t relate to the compulsion to understand the true reasons behind a disappearance, however horrible the answer might be? As breakup movies go, Lo supplies a real, mythic catharsis.

With all that it has going for it, I would love to nominate Lo for our supplemental Apocryphally Weird list. Is it ingenious? Definitely. Engaging? Undoubtedly. Passionate? Sincerely. Recommended? You know it. Weird? Ah, here is where the favorable adjectives falter. Lo is well off the beaten path of the average filmgoer—the one who doesn’t frequent this site. What we see in Lo, though, isn’t so much weird as offbeat, rare, counter-Hollywood: unusual in its approach, by necessity, but not so far out-there that it makes us question our notions of reality, or if what a film can and should be. So, despite the fact that we give Lo a high rating, we won’t be adding it to our List. That doesn’t mean we’re giving you a pass to skip it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a peculiar and experimental horror film about love gained, love lost, and the demons that can stand in your way. ‘Lo’ is an odd twist on Faust, and an entertaining indie film that impresses with its bare essential filmmaking.”–Felix Vaquez, Cinema Crazed (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by Kat, who argued “I’m a little surprised not to see Travis Betz’s Lo (2009) on the suggestion list. Like Ink, its imitations and inspirations are pretty obvious– but I personally think it outstrips Ink in a few key areas, never over-stepping its budget. I found it a little more bizarre, too, in the way it takes a simple trope of a premise and reels continually between drama and dark comedy.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DRAG ME TO HELL (2009)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:  Sam Raimi

FEATURING: , Lorna Raver

PLOT: Seeking a promotion, a cute and kind-hearted loan officer decides to get tough with the wrong customer, denying a mortgage extension to an elderly gypsy woman who curses her with a demon that will torment her for three days before dragging her to hell.

Drag Me to Hell (2009) still

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Because too much weirdness would have jeopardized Sam’s chance to direct the next Spiderman installment.

COMMENTS: On the surface, Drag Me to Hell‘s blend of spurting body fluids, horror, and absurd slapstick bring to mind director Sam Raimi’s celebrated The Evil Dead 2. Drag Me, however, isn’t nearly as anarchic or over-the-top with its carnage; and more importantly, it lacks the cabin-fever dream feel of Raimi’s weird wonderwork, substituting a standard ticking-clock suspense trope. Rather than being comically unhinged, Drag Me to Hell instead feels tightly controlled, at times even micromanaged: a PG-13 Evil Dead for the cineplexes. Not that that’s entirely a bad thing: the movie is exactly what it’s intended to be, a spook-house carnival ride with abundant jump scares and grossout scenes to thrill the teenyboppers, along with plenty of black humor homages offered as a sop to fans of 1980s drive-in horror/comedy classics (such as the eyeball-related callback to Evil Dead II, and the gleefully excessive catfight between a hottie and grannie using office supplies as weapons).  The diabolic plot is reminiscent of ‘s 1957 classic Night of the Demon, retooled to focus on action and effects instead of oppressive ambiance. Simultaneously satisfying the longing for classic Gothic atmosphere, the high spectacle quota demanded of blockbusters, and the nostalgia of longtime Raimi fans for those abandoned hip horror trips, Drag Me to Hell is a well-constructed, well-placed and welcome addition to Hollywood’s summer lineup.

Although it’s an entertaining movie, the enormously positive critical and audience reaction probably relates more to the relative crapiness of Hollywood’s recent efforts in the horror genre than to the inherent quality of this film. After reviewing a seemingly endless parade of gory slaughterfest “reboots” of Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, ad nauseum, critics are eager to encourage an original supernatural script that doesn’t cynically depend on a massive bloody body count for effect. Audiences whose taste in old-fashioned spooky stories have been ignored in recent years are just thrilled to see anything arcane on the big screen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Raimi temporarily shrugs off the A-list status the Spider-Man movies earned him and returns to his disrespectable Evil Dead ways. The blood and guts may have been tamped way, way down, but the manic intensity and delirious mayhem of those earlier zombie romps remain intact.”–Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald