CULT CORNER: The Keep (1983)

Our latest recruit and resident doctor of schlock, John Cowdell, sings the praises of Michael Mann’s mistreated Nazi horror. 

Who made it?: Michael Mann (Director/Writer), Gene Kirkwood, Hawk Koch (Producers), Paramount Pictures.

Who’s in it?: Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Jürgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellen.

Tagline: “THEY WERE ALL DRAWN TO THE KEEP. The soldiers who brought death. The father and daughter fighting for life. The people who have always feared it. And the one man who knows its secret… THE KEEP. Tonight, they will all face the evil.”

IMDb rating: 5.8/10.

The Keep is one of those films that is as forgotten about as Britain’s first X Factor winner, and as debated about as the assassination of JFK. With its ghostly, stylised imagery and a story that could have easily been taken from Tales From the Crypt, The Keep is a fascinating and somewhat mind-bending experience. Is it horror? Is it war? Is it a fairytale? Perhaps it is all of those things.

In 1941, a Nazi army lead by Captain Klaus Woermann is sent to guard an ancient fortress in a Romanian village known as The Keep. One night, whilst trying to steal one of the beloved silver crosses, a soldier unwittingly unleashes a supernatural force which has been held prisoner within the walls of The Keep for centuries. The relentless force, which turns out to be an evil demon named Molasar, wipes out several of the soldiers. Sensing the disturbance at The Keep, a mysterious stranger called Glaeken Trismegestus awakes from his home in Greece and journeys to the fortress to vanquish the evil force. As soldiers continue to be massacred, a Jewish scientist, Dr. Cuza and his daughter, Eva, are brought to The Keep and held captive by the Nazis in an attempt to help explain the strange phenomena that’s occurring.

Produced on a budget of $6,000,000, The Keep was written and directed by Michael Mann, best known for his later films Manhunter (1986) and Heat (1995). The film was an adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s novel of the same name, published in 1981. The Keep was Michael Mann’s second feature film after Thief (1981) starring James Caan. The film’s score was performed by German electronic group Tangerine Dream (who had previously worked with Mann on Thief). The music is an unusual choice for a period piece such as this, but the ambient, electronic rhythms complement Mann’s visual style perfectly. And it’s the director’s unique imagery which is the real selling point of the film, with Mann’s purposeful use of slow-motion and his creation of a hypnotic and dreamlike world.

The Keep has a stellar cast which includes Jürgen Prochnow as Woermann,  Ian McKellen as Dr. Theodore Cuza, Scott Glenn as Trismegestus, Gabriel Byrne as Major Kaempffer, and Robert Prosky as Father Mihail Fonescu. The main standout performances for me are by Byrne and Prochnow. They both play Nazis who couldn’t be any different from each other. Byrne plays a typical Nazi villain: vicious, cruel and unremorseful. This only makes his demise towards the end of the film that more satisfying. This was Prochnow’s first Hollywood theatrical feature film following his breakthrough lead role in Das Boot (1981) which was produced in his native Germany. For me, he portrays the most interesting character in the story. Despite being a Nazi, he seems to have empathy with those who are being mistreated by his comrades. His frequent clashes with Byrne’s character suggest that he is opposed to the war and certainly doesn’t agree with the Third Reich’s savage methods.

Many people who have seen this film will say its just plain weird, and I suppose it is at first glance. But to me, this movie has so many different layers that deal with subjects such as religion and the holocaust, making The Keep more interesting and insightful the more you watch it. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you watch it with an open mind, you just might find yourself getting some enjoyment from it.

Sadly, a lot about this film has dated, especially the visual and make-up effects. Molasar was conceptualised by French comic artist Enki Bilal, and the demon’s appearances throughout the film occur in a series of manifestations. At first, he is a mysterious, glowing fog, and then slowly forms into a humanoid being, finally resulting in a muscle-bound Goliath with pink, purpley flesh and burning red eyes. In my view, Molasar resembles an 80’s He-Man action figure, like the ones I used to play with as a kid. His physical appearance is somewhat laughable, with his cheesy, rubbery design. And considering this film was made in the early 80s when special make-up effects were drastically improving under the artistry of such people as Stan Winston, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin, this only makes Molasar’s design that more crude and unflattering.

Mann described this film as: “A fairy story for grown-ups. Fairy tales have the power of dreams – from the outside. I decided to stylise the art direction and photography extensively but use realistic characterisation and dialogue.” He also said of World War II: “There is a moment in time when the unconscious is externalised. In the case of the 20th Century, this time was the fall of 1941. What Hitler promised in the beer gardens had actually come true. The greater German Reich was at its apogee: it controlled all Europe. And the dark psychotic appeal underlying the slogans and rationalisations was making itself manifest.”

The Keep was released on 16th December, 1983, and was a major box office flop. But even though the film was a failure at the time of release, it is now considered a cult movie by many. Only time will tell if it ever becomes a cult classic. Maybe the film would be more appreciated by audiences if Mann’s full uncut version were available, which is more than double the length of the theatrical version with a running time of approximately three-and-a-half hours. Certainly the version of the film I would be very interested in seeing.

The Keep has never been released on DVD despite Paramount planning to do so in 2004. This is mainly due to a couple of factors: Mann, who has publicly disowned the film, forced Paramount not to release it on the format, and also because the studio couldn’t re-acquire the rights to the score by Tangerine Dream. However, in the UK the film has been shown a number of times on television on the Film4 channel. I believe the version shown here is from the original Laserdisc, and it clearly shows with the poor picture quality. This is certainly not one of Mann’s best films along with Manhunter and Heat, but it is certainly one of his most thought-provoking ventures to date.

Best Scene

Whilst trying to steal a glowing cross from the wall of The Keep, a Nazi soldier unleashes an ancient evil which proceeds to cause mayhem and destruction.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • The Keep set was built in an disused abandoned former slate quarry at Glyn Rhonwy near Llanberis in North Wales. Michael Mann once described the set by saying: “It’s a black monumental structure that might have been built by a medieval Albert Speer.”
  • The armoured car seen in several scenes is the same vehicle used as “Gruber’s Little Tank” in BBC TV’s ‘Allo ‘Allo (1982).
  • A board game based on the movie was designed by James D. Griffin and published by Mayfair Games in 1983 the same year that the film debuted.

John Cowdell

I have been writing and producing short films for over ten years and are now branching out into film reviews.

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