Before achieving massive success with Miami Vice, Heat, The Insider, Ali, etc., director Michael Mann dipped into the horror genre in the early 80’s with the film adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep. The novel is a vampire fantasy set in the latter days of WWII, depicting the German army’s unfortunate intersection with an epic battle between supernatural beings in a remote mountain castle in Romania. It’s a terrific book filled with well-drawn characters, a solid story, and a wonderfully creepy atmosphere. Honestly though in terms of attempting a film translation it’s a little daunting because there’s so much going on. Undeterred Mann plunged ahead and created one of the best horror films of the decade, a piece almost entirely reliant on mood vs. conventional storytelling. The film bombed at the box office and received a critical thrashing, the prevailing attitude being that The Keep was a good-looking, yet jumbled mess of a film. I agree with the first part, however must beg to differ with the second. While not a perfect film, The Keep is nevertheless a significant achievement for its era, and due to its hallucinatory vibe has maintained a timeless quality. No doubt many will disagree, but I find it to be Mann’s most fascinating work among a rather impressive set of credentials. I shall do my best to explain . . .
The Keep starts out with a motorized German regiment traveling along a dreary mountain pass in the pouring rain. From the word go there is an oppressive gloom to the film that sets the stage for what is to come. As the rain pours down loudly the electronic score by Tangerine Dream kicks in and organically blends with the ambient noise. The whole tableau has the effect of drawing one in immediately to the ethereal mood Mann is working to establish. Few movies do this as well as The Keep manages. As the convoy enters the small village that is home to the keep we feel as much an outsider as the soldiers. Our guide is a German officer named Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) who is a tough, yet sympathetic fellow. We grow to learn that he despises the Nazis, contrary to the initial stern attitude he puts forward.
The convoy pulls up to the keep, which is so monolithic that it’s hard to get an accurate impression of its size and shape. Woermann and company head inside to set up camp for the occupation of the village, and he is immediately warned off by the caretaker who explains that "no one stays" inside. This is not because it is forbidden by anyone in particular, but simply because “no one stays.” Woermann immediately picks up on the supernatural hint and is willing to have no part of it . . . even though the walls are covered with nickel crosses (to keep something in as it turns out). The crew sets up camp and no sooner does the first night fall before the trouble commences. Two soldiers think there are silver crosses and pry some loose revealing a huge chasm. In one of the most amazing visuals a “presence” rises from the chasm and attacks one of the soldiers, and we can only see the action from afar. When his companion gets a closer look he discovers that the fellow has been practically obliterated, and shortly thereafter is subjected to the same treatment.
Suspecting that the villagers are engaging in sabotage, military command sends a complement of SS soldiers to wreak havoc and get to the bottom of things. Their ruthless leader Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) immediately clashes with Woermann, who is increasingly convinced that the supernatural is in play. After harsh interrogations Kaempffer learns of a Jewish expert named Cuza (Ian McKellen) who may be able to advise him on the keep. Fortunately Cuza and his daughter are rescued as they are about to be sent to a concentration camp. Since Cuza is stricken by a crippling disease his daughter is allowed to come along as his caretaker. As he stalls for time to plan an escape for his daughter, he encounters the creature at the heart of the keep and is offered a deal with the devil of sorts. Racing to the keep to prevent catastrophe is a mysterious stranger named Glaeken (Scott Glenn) who is prepared for a final battle with the ultimate evil.
The biggest problem with The Keep resides in the fact that it tries to cram a lot of plot and too many characters into a woefully inadequate 90-minutes. The events move along at a breakneck pace, giving one little time to absorb each new development. As a result one has to be open to arriving in the middle of an existing world, and not being let in on much of the necessary details in order to enjoy the film. A recent BFI film study on Star Wars by Will Brooker makes the case the Lucas does the same sort of thing in his original trilogy. Basically the viewer is dropped into a universe with a long-running history, which is never fully explained but referenced continuously. It’s an interesting observation because this tactic is highly effective in creating the wonderful atmosphere of those films. In regards to The Keep viewers will be familiar with the historical context of WWII, but the history of Glaeken and his adversary Rasalom (Michael Carter) are not examined whatsoever. This is a major feature of the book (which is in fact also the first in a trilogy), so there’s little doubt that its absence in the film is not an accident.
With this last point in mind Mann makes an interesting choice that sends the film down a path that is make or break depending on one’s tolerance. Instead of focusing on the primary hero and villain, he chooses to focus (to the extent that there is a focus) on the peripheral characters of the soldiers and the Cuzas. The good news is that Prochnow, McKellen, Byrne and company do a great job within the limited time they are given to make an impression. Real sympathy is generated for the good guys, and the villains are all sufficiently despicable. On the other hand Glaeken and Rasalom are total question marks, as is the motive behind their conflict. All we are told is that Rasalom is evil and wants out, and Glaeken has come to destroy him. To some extent this is enough information I suppose, but let’s look at the Star Wars analogy. Imagine if 15-20 minutes of screen time was given to Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, with the rest of the film devoted to the tribulations faced by C-3PO and R2-D2. It would still be cool and groundbreaking in its own way, but you couldn’t help but wonder if there was something missing. For those familiar with the original novel the answer to what is missing is abundantly clear, and to viewers The Keep just winds up being more than a little confusing.
You might be thinking to yourself that it doesn’t sound like I care too much for The Keep given these issues. Honestly the first time I saw it I was a little befuddled. I had seen previews for it and thought it looked mighty cool, so as was customary I pleaded with my parents to take me to see it. In that particular period we still saw about 50% of theatrical releases at the drive-in, and so it was with The Keep. It was on a triple bill with The Dead Zone and Uncommon Valor, and as was also customary I convinced them to stay for all three : ) So in one evening we watched a moody Michael Mann film, a Stephen King/Christopher Walken/David Cronenberg collaboration, and a war movie with Reb “Yor: The Hunter From the Future” Brown. Quite a night. All of these were of high interest to me, but most of all The Keep. However stacked against those other films The Keep was less than thrilling and somewhat of a letdown. It had an interesting looking monster and cool visuals, but it was light on action and lacked a coherent story. What can I say, artsy horror like The Keep had a hard time competing with Stephen King and Reb Brown for my attention as a young teen. It wasn’t until years later that the tide started to turn.
I was browsing in a local bookstore sometime in the early 90’s when I happened across the novel by F. Paul Wilson. Remembering my experience with the film I wondered if perhaps the book would shed any light on what was going on with the fuzzy plot. Boy did it ever! The novel fleshes out all the characters, and gives the much needed background on Glaeken and Rasalom. Wilson even put out a sequels which formed a trilogy depicting the struggle between the two rivals over the ages. It’s a true horror epic. I ended up loving the book and it’s one of few fiction titles that I occasionally revisit now and then. It never fails to creep me out, and the characters and storytelling are outstanding. I enjoyed it so much that it sparked my interest in revisiting the film, hoping that the background from the novel would clarify what was missing during my first viewing. Being somewhat of an A/V die hard I tracked down the widescreen laserdisc for a proper screening (Mann uses the ultra widescreen ratio of 2:35:1, so watching The Keep in pan & scan is entirely unacceptable). Sadly to this day the laserdisc is still the best way to view the film outside of theatrical exhibition, as no DVD, Blu-Ray, or even Itunes release has emerged.
In any case that second viewing was quite a different experience. The same issues still remained, but with the back story in mind things were easier to follow. Furthermore my appreciation of artsy fare had increased substantially, and I was able to embrace Mann’s atmospheric approach to the material. Watching this in a darkened room one starts to feel the dank confines of the castle and the air of hopelessness that dominates the proceedings. While it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Mann had been more faithful to Wilson’s novel (one could easily imagine how this could have been adapted as the trilogy), there’s no question that he succeeded in making one of the most unique horror films of the last 30 years. It stands head and shoulders above most of the slasher fare of the 80’s, and its dreamlike quality provides an experience that few other horror films achieve (e.g. the very best of Argento, Fulci, etc.).
As an interesting aside, despite being a loser at the box office the participants mostly went on to highly successful careers. Mann, Byrne, Prochnow, and McKellen all ended up doing very well. In my mind the real casualty of The Keep is Scott Glenn. Glenn is one of the great actors of that era, and I believe The Keep is largely responsible for halting his ascent to A-list leading man. Prior to that point he had been featured in prominent supporting roles in Personal Best and Urban Cowboy, before finally getting his first lead role in John Frankenheimer’s The Challenge opposite the legendary Toshiro Mifune. That was a pretty amazing film and he followed it up with the equally awesome The Right Stuff. Kind of on a roll there. As a big-budget fantasy release The Keep should have cemented Glenn’s status. Despite the fact that he is the top-billed leading man in the film, he gets about 5 lines of dialogue and 15 minutes of screen time! Pretty unbelievable. Then the film bombs and he’s at the head of the list of participants. It’s not difficult to imagine that he didn’t instantly spring to mind thereafter when folks were seeking to cast big studio films. Glenn did (and still does) reach greatness in supporting roles (e.g. Silence of the Lambs, The Hunt for Red October, Backdraft, etc.), but he never quite made it back to the height of that moment in time. A real shame.
The good news is that The Keep is downright amazing . . . you just have to be willing to accept it on its own terms, rather than expectations of what a traditional horror narrative should be. That may be a bitter pill for fans of the book, but like any adaptation compromises are made. My hope is that one day The Keep finds its way onto a modern home video format so we can have a Fantasmo screening!
On a final note if you become a devotee of The Keep like me you’ll also want to track down the official board game(!) that was released in conjunction with the film, so you can recreate all the thrilling action and scares at home. I blogged about it on a post concerning unlikely movie board games, and it is definitely one of my faves in the lot. If you check out the image of it in the posting you'll notice it's based on "the hit" movie (yeah right). Also cool is the fact that they redid the poster image so that instead of two soldiers running toward the keep, it has the silhouette of Glaeken and Cuza's daughter in the doorway to emphasize the unlikely romantic angle.