Michael Mann’s Gothic horror sees an Einsatzkommando unit taking over a keep in a Romanian village only to awaken an evil far greater than Hitler’s Nazis. Commander Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot) quickly realises the Keep was a fortress built to hold something in; something the greed of his men release and pay with their lives.
Based on a horror pulp novel by F. Paul Wilson, The Keep was an unlikely early project for the American director of Manhunter, Heat, Miami Vice and The Insider. But, since his stated fascination is for the nature of evil, this tale of supernatural evil versus Nazis suited his nascent style very well. Whatever you admire about Michael Mann, subtlety is not the first quality that comes to mind.
The Keep was made on the cheap at an abandoned slate quarry in Wales and at cut-price Shepperton Studios. The German uniforms and weapons are frequently wrong, the sound design bold but abysmally mixed, the visual effects at first so impressive with a vapourous demon on the loose, give way to a bloke in a bizarre rubber suit with two torchlights for eyes.
As horror goes, the atmosphere is plastered on in noise and light, the mutilation effects are clumsy but inventive, and there are no real jump moments.
Mann’s self-penned script is a real clunker for most of the running time, and both the edits of the movie I’ve seen appear to have been hacked with a machete. Mann’s style is to leap about when he gets bored with a scene, in the mistaken idea that an abrupt finish gives a movie pace. Not here. The Keep is actually a ponderous juggernaut.
Broken by a rather nasty rape scene (despite the cum-uppance of the perpetrators), a superfluous sex scene and some Nazi violence, every time Mann builds up any proper tension he blows it with the supernatural shenanigans or some hokey dialogue.
Two things make The Keep work at all; one is Mann’s trademark glossy style – matured on TV in Miami Vice and on film with Last of the Mohicans – right down to the framing of shots and obligatory slow-mo sequences. It’s a bold, showman’s style, all rough edges in this early work.
The other is the casting. Gabriel Byrne is truly terrifying as the ruthless SS officer who comes to relieve Prochnov of command of the strategic fortress. Byrne and Prochnov play all the best scenes, the big beasts in opposition, the soldier and the Nitzchean idealogue. Cue Pacino and De Niro twenty years later in Heat. They are supported by the entire 80’s intake of the RSC.
Elsewhere, Ian Mackellen (The Hobbit, X-Men) and Alberta Watson (24) apear as Jewish father and daughter, although Mackellen hams it up between English and American accents all the way through the picture. His misguided Jewish professor thinks he can make a pact with the devil to rid the world of Hitler, while daughter Elsa knows this is a bargain too far.
A young Scott Glen makes a rather lifeless, man-with-no-name action hero who, on repeated viewings, seems to do less and less, up to the final show-down, a laser-lit operatic Aria of smoke and wind machines and the worst excesses of 80’s synth-darlings, Tangerine Dream, with their clanging score.
So why did I sit through it again on late night TV recently? For one thing, Michael Mann does not do bland – Manhunter, his original Hannibal Lector Red Dragon adaptation, along with Heat, remain among my favourites.
Amidst the chaos, he frames Wilson’s unique take on the vampire horror in a glorious, flawed production design, then asks his actors to do the impossible with a bad script and no shooting time. If you’ve seen Miami Vice (movie or TV), Mohicans or Manhunter, you’ll know he’s no director of actors; his bravura style leaves no time for it.
I admit it, The Keep is one of those guilty pleasures, plain and simple. RC
The Keep (1983)
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Michael Mann
Cast: Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Jürgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellen
Running time: 1 hr. 36 min.
Genre: Mystery & Suspense, Horror
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