And now I have the esteemed pleasure of introducing to this series a movie directed by Michael Mann, starring Gabriel Byrne, Jürgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn, and Sir Ian Freaking McKellen. It is a difficult proposition to see why this is, that is, until you see it. The Keep is a true filmed disaster, a rare archetype in the annals of cinema history, like an albino alligator, alongside Ken Russell’s The Devils, David Lynch’s Dune, Matthew Bright’s Tiptoes, David O. Russell’s Nailed, and most recently Paul Schrader’s The Dying Of The Light and Justin Chadwick’s Tulip Fever. The Keep is a film that was inopportune from its inception, forced into place with possibly the wrong creative staff; and then bungled from pre-production to post in a litany of cinema sins. The studio abandonment of all of the above movies (with, possibly, the exception of The Devils, which I still think is a masterpiece) is directly influenced by that critical dichotomy in cinema: Is it art, or entertainment? Each film, including The Keep, is the result of a forced perspective – the work simply must be one or the other, dammit; and from the studio to the director to the audience, no one got what they signed up for. Time usually heals all wounds, and most films abandoned by its producers eventually find some kind of audience and posthumous life. For me and The Keep, the jury’s still out.
The Keep wasn’t exactly slumming it. On a $6 million budget (around $15 million today), this was a solid mid-level production, perfect for the breakout director of Thief (currently out on Criterion Collection). The source was a popular horror novel, and it was a cross-genre dream: blending religious occultism, war films, haunted houses / castles, and Nazis. What could possibly go wrong?
According to online sources, mostly a 210 minute cut of a genre film, and the death of its SFX lead, Wally Veevers (of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Zeppelin, et al.). The film’s production tumult is well-documented by more interested parties. All that really matters is, the footage is cut beyond oblivion, blown to cinema hell.
But the pieces are there to make a cult item. The film begins with Capt. Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) in a kind of dream state, after the camera descends from on high, through fog, delicately, to an army in advance. His squadron arrives in an isolated Romanian town, living in the shadow of an cryptic citadel known to them only as The Keep. They are there to protect their army in the Dinu Mountain Pass during Operation Barbarossa. This is the first interesting thing about The Keep: good Nazis. Or, at least, we are meant to side with, and generally support the decisions of, Capt. Woermann, who without the typical blood-red red swastika on his arm is surprisingly sympathetic. (When he catches one soldier trying to pry the nickel crosses out of The Keep’s walls, he respects local heritage over his footsoldier’s greed). Eventually, when SD Sturmbannführer Eric Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) comes a callin’, we have a Nazi to hate – the first things Kaempffer does are murder some villagers and call out the clearly pragmatic Capt. Woermann on his ineptitude. And Kaempffer wears a swastika, which makes hating him easier.
The second key piece to The Keep’s continued fandom is its clear visual fidelity. The shots are generally impeccable – with Mann’s trademark detail work evident in every aspect of the production design. In one long take, somehow left in the 96 minute cut, a boat approaches the Romanian seashore at dawn, and the camera pans from left to right, in the true Magic Hour, revealing the boat in darkness to appear in silhouette as the sun just touches the horizon. It’s the kind of shot that takes one’s breath away. Cinematographer Alex Thompson began with fare like Dr. Phibes Rises Again before upgrading to Nicolas Roeg’s Eureka and John Boorman’s Excalibur. Then The Keep. What is remarkable about his work is that it retains that distinctive 1980s fog and grit, while simultaneously representing everything that would come to define Michael Mann’s visual flair: carefully executed alignment of details within the frame, periodic dynamic use of bright light, a distinctive color scheme cascading towards monochromatic cerulean. Frankly, the work often surpasses the objects in the frame.
And then there’s the music by Tangerine Dream. While it doesn’t fit the timeline of the story at all, it fits the mood, offering the visuals a perspective outside of time, much like falling into meditation. Like Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner work, or Kenji Kawai’s Ghost in the Shell pieces, the repetitious horns and chords create a feeling of ritual, adding an otherworldly character to already outlandish visuals. While there are only five to six leitmotifs, they lend the proceedings an air of respectability not otherwise derived from a story about a rock demon that may be Jewish in a Christian castle inhabited by Nazis and under siege by an angel-alien played by Scott Glenn.
This is where the film falls apart, as a film. If The Keep were a 96 minute screensaver with Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack and no dialogue, it may hold more interest than the movie as it currently exists in its truncated form (and, actually, that may make a fantastic Guy Maddin picture; or an opportunity for someone to go all Rose Hobart on the existing footage). Going from 210 reported minutes to 96 means all kinds of inconsistencies – Glenn’s character, Glaeken Trismegestus, is hardly Thrice Great because he’s hardly in it at all, and his existence is never appropriately explained. Ian McKellen’s Dr. Cuza arc seems more lunatic than nuanced (his character makes more sense as a Smigel under a time crunch). And Alberta Watson’s Cuza is embarrassingly underutilized – when she makes love with Glaeken (about 10 minutes after she’s raped by German soldiers), it feels like another violation because it’s so abrupt – the character is practically raped by the script. By that very point, the film loses me each time. The narrative is either on autopilot or overdrive, and the subsequent litany of scenes consist of either undercooked dialogue or overbaked contrivances.
Which is to say, it should be scary, but frankly isn’t. The evil Golem(?) of The Keep, Molasar, is most probably a vampire of fear and of light – as the Nazis release his power from The Keep and he begins his subterfuge of the humans’ lives, he steals some kind of light/soul essence from each; the villagers, especially the village Priest, go slightly mad by the film’s end. But there is no single scene of explicit or even insinuated exposition to frame the goings-on for us. The Keep was a great opportunity for Lovecraftian madness in ancient Romania with Nazis, complete with a sealed underground city of terrors and ancient evils with world-shattering power. The result doesn’t have enough menace to intimidate McKellen’s apathetic performance. Scott Glenn shows up to save the world from Molasar once he puts on his Rob Liefeld neck.
So when all is done and the credits roll, everything is truthfully left unresolved. The experience feels unsatisfactory, because you know deep down it is. The cult surrounding the film is fed by this nagging doubt. The impulse to want to know more is self-perpetuating. Indeed, a lot of The Keep interests me still, even though every trip into its underground caverns leaves me wanting. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does an audience. The Keep becomes a film more about what is left unsaid than what is – a strange meditation on loss, on creative powers cut down. Perhaps its inherent unsettled nature, its curious abandonment of both art and entertainment, is the pull that continues to drive us into The Keep.
Each day all through October, I’ll be writing my two cents on 31 horror films from the dark alleys, lost highways, and unexpected corners of cinema history. Here’s to the fringes!