January 7, 2015

Investigating Michael Mann: The Keep

The Keep, directed by Michael Mann
The imposing title structure in Michael Mann's The Keep.

Some doors should remain unopened. Despite frequent viewings of trademark Michael Mann films like Heat and The Insider, I’d never checked out the lone holdout from his career. It’s time to enter The Keep, which is easily the most peculiar selection in Mann’s canon. Released in 1983, the supernatural thriller includes evil Nazis, friendly Nazis, a vicious monster, old Ian McKellan, young Ian McKellan, and Scott Glenn as an irresistible sex god. It’s the type of film the Alamo Drafthouse would champion as a hidden gem. It’s no coincidence that they have screened it in the past. Mann has basically disowned the film after massive studio cuts, though it’s doubtful there was a brilliant epic possible with this premise. It works best as a movie to watch at a local bar or midnight screening, especially when the chaos takes over in the final act.

The Keep was Mann’s second film after debuting with the effective crime drama Thief in 1981. Coming before his work on the series Miami Vice and Manhunter three years later, it remains a head-scratching part of Mann’s career. The $6 million horror film is based on the novel of the same name by F. Paul Wilson and matches its basic elements. In 1941, Nazis take over a large keep in the Carpathian Alps in Romania and unwittingly release an ancient evil. This mysterious being is methodically killing the soldiers, led by the sinister Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) and friendlier Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow). They enlist the services of the wheelchair-bound Professor Cuza (Ian McKellan) and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) to decipher unknown writing on the wall. Meanwhile, a powerful loner named Glaeken (Scott Glenn) arrives to stop the growing menace before it’s too late.

The Romanian village in Michael Mann's The Keep
The German convoy enters a Romanian village in the effective opening sequence.

An Ominous Beginning


The most telling sign of Mann’s presence is the opening act, which conveys a sense of foreboding about the keep. The credits play over a blue screen with unexplained booms in the background. Are they cracks of thunder or the sounds of war? Tangerine Dream’s electronic score creates a mood of dread as the camera scrolls down to reveal a convoy of military vehicles. We take an eerie ride through a village as the stone-faced residents welcome the Nazis. Mann uses a POV shot that puts us inside the jeep with Woemann. The slow pace just adds to the feeling that nothing good will come from this journey. A narrow bridge leads to a gray and massive structure. Who wants any part of this place?

Plenty of signs indicate the Nazis have no business with this keep. The caretaker explains that no one stays the night and yells “Never touch the crosses!” at the dim-witted soldiers. He’s very direct that messing with this place is foolish. It’s interesting to note that most of the Nazis aren’t shown as evil. They’re just shallow guys obsessed with silver. The portentous scenes in the keep have a similar feel to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, with equally disastrous results. Two expendable guys don’t recognize the warning signs and face the consequences. It wouldn’t surprise me if Scott took some cues from this film when storyboarding his sci-fi epic. He had a larger budget, but there’s a similar B-movie feel as the characters stroll carelessly through the dark passageways. During Mann’s big reveal, the camera pulls back from the Nazis to reveal a massive chamber. Only terrible things live in a room this large.

Ian McKellan plays Dr. Cuza in Michael Mann's The Keep.
Ian McKellan tries his best to stay intense despite the ridiculous circumstances.

Giving It Their All


What’s remarkable about a B movie like The Keep is the excellent cast. McKellan does everything he can to bring depth to Cuza. He was 45 at the time but starts out playing a much older man. It doesn’t seem odd because that guy’s age is closer to where McKellan is now. His key speech against the creature (known as Molasar) reveals the dramatic skills he’s shown many times. The problem is that it comes in a ridiculous third act that’s hard to take seriously. Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot) throws his heart and soul into a speech vilifying the Nazi regime. The problem is that it’s suited for another movie. Gabriel Byrne has the right idea with his obviously evil commander who kills villagers without a second thought. He’s playing the more standard Nazi you might expect on screen. Mann finds room for the actors to shine within the schlocky material. Glenn’s direct style of acting works to play the eerie Glaeken. A figure with such a singular purpose wouldn’t waste time on small talk.

The most thankless role goes to Alberta Watson as Cuza’s daughter Eva. Two Nazis try to rape her, yet she barely seems affected once they’re dispatched by Molasar. She doesn’t think it’s very odd to see her father as a much younger guy. There’s also an unnecessary sex scene that’s impossible to take seriously thanks to awful synth music. The way she quickly succumbs to Glaeken’s “charms” is similar to the way Conner MacLeod wooed the ladies in Highlander. All it takes is some stilted dialogue and fierce eyes to make it happen. The sex scene begins with a gorgeous shot on a hill with the sun shining over the couple. It also includes some comically blatant Christ imagery from both participants. After this point, Watson has little else to do other than to get upset and yell “NOOO!” during the tragic climax.

Molasar in Michael Mann's The Keep, released in 1983.
The impressive special effects of the Molasar creature aren't enough to make it work.

A Messy Finale


The final act of The Keep makes little sense and throws scenes together that don’t seem connected. Molasar has become a giant red monster that partially resembles a human, and the stage is set for the final battle. There’s a grand scale to the physical sets and effects, though it’s hard to get too concerned. The reason is the series of head-scratching moments where characters act inexplicably. The priest starts raving at Cuza, and we’ve seen no evidence for this nutty behavior. Woermann speaks out against Hitler and the entire Nazi regime, but this doesn’t match his character. I expect the studio cuts played a role in the feeling that the scenes don’t connect. Once again, I was reminded of Prometheus and its unfortunate third act. The incoherence is likely a key reason for the cult status in case of The Keep, however. When you combine the hokey religious imagery with the messy plot, it can lead to an entertaining ride.

Tangerine Dream also scored Thief and did well in Mann’s debut, but their work seems over the top for most of this film. Their music here is more in line with their work for Legend, also directed by Ridley Scott. This material is already silly, and the constant score just adds to that feeling. Mann crafts some impressive moments, but this subject doesn’t match his skills. It’s no surprise that he hasn’t returned to the supernatural realm since this point. The closest example is probably Manhunter, which chronicled a serial killer and stayed in the B movie world. Even so, that steady thriller is connected enough with the real world to fit his talents. The Keep remains the oddest part of Mann’s career, and it would take a lot to supersede it. Unless it’s playing at a local bar or midnight screening, I’d leave it to the completists.

10 comments:

  1. I have this on my horror watchlist because of the director, but not an essential watch is what I'm getting from reading your review. His talent was not for horror I suppose, so good he moved on to other things.

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    1. I wouldn't call The Keep "essential", but I do think it may be worth seeing as a curiosity if nothing else. There are some vocal proponents that believe it's a hidden gem, but it felt more like an interesting mess to me.

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  2. Not essential is pretty much dead on. I find this a curiousity, in part because the old makeup Ian McKellen looks pretty much exactly like Ian McKellen does now. I also enjoy the very young Gabriel Byrne, who looks fresh out of high school.

    I like Robert Prosky in this, who was a character actor used by Mann several times. But of all the Mann films I've seen--and I've seen most--this one is definitely the weirdest and the one most easily justified as worthy of being skipped.

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    1. It sounds like we're on the same page with this one. Gabriel Byrne looks so young! That actually helps to make his evil character seem like a teenager playing war.

      This is the Mann film where I can't really defend it. It's very different than something like Public Enemies where I'm a fan and believe he's doing interesting things but understand where it might fall short for some. This one is just such an odd movie to come from Mann! I really wonder if the studio cuts were the real killer, though I can't imagine watching a three-hour version of The Keep. Even 90 minutes felt like it was a bit much.

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  3. I had a laugh while reading your description of that ending, because yeah, it's such a damn mess. Very impressive that you were able to write such a good review on this film. I had trouble cranking out two paragraphs on it!

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    1. I've started taking notes at home when I'm going to write about a movie. I don't always use them, but they definitely helped with The Keep. It isn't dull; that's for sure.

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  4. I like Mann's work, but I've never even heard of this one. It sounds kooky as hell. Great review, Dan.

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    1. Wendell, the craziness is hard to describe, so I'm not sure that I'm even doing it justice. It's definitely much different than Mann's other work.

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  5. Another underrated movie, like "Blackhat"!
    It's a flawed movie for sure, the special effects are uneven (especially the laser finale!) and some plot points feel too rushed but i really like its dreamlike atmosphere (like in "Manhunter") and Mann's usual great use of widescreen cinematography, locations and soundtrack...the first half is especially impressive (the opening scene, the silver crosses removal scene, Molasar's first big scene, saving Eva Cuza's life from the soldiers)...i also like the showdown between Byrne and Prochnow's characters, Byrne and "Molasar"...the final freeze frame is quite haunting too (Alberta Watson -RIP- does a good job in my opinion). The love scene in its weird dreamlike editing (from one location to another one) also is a bit close to what Mann did with another love scene 30 years later in "Blackhat". "Predator" also seemed to borrow from "The Keep" some of its visuals and ideas, its mix of war and horror movie, the green blood, the unseen creature in the first half, etc.
    To sum up, i wouldn't mind a Blu Ray/Dvd release of "The Keep"!

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    1. I'm not sure that I'd put The Keep up there with Blackhat, but I agree that it has some cool moments. I can see Mann's talent at certain points, but it all spins out of control by the end. It does deserve a collector's edition blu-ray regardless, though.

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