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DIRECTED BY: Michael Mann
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.
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.)