Michael Mann’s “The Keep” (1983) is a deep cut in his body of work, a severely compromised studio film that presents a transitional moment in the filmmaker’s creative journey.
Based on F. Paul Wilson’s enjoyably pulpy 1981 horror novel, Mann’s film, known as a notorious misstep in its day, has grown as an appreciated work over the years, though its flaws and fatal studio alterations remain.
Both visually rich and completely off the rails, “The Keep” is a perfect unearthed Mann time capsule to ready his fans for the release “Ferrari” (or just another nightly viewing of “Heat”).
Wilson’s 1941-set story depicts Nazis sent to Romania, where they take watch inside a massive, Sphinx-like structure called The Keep. Once inside, a long-dormant monster named Molosar is unearthed, and kills the soldiers in highly demonstrative ways (he’s a messy killer).
Two of the Nazis in charge, played by Jurgen Prochnow and Gabriel Byrne, are baffled by the murders and turn to a Jewish prisoner, Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen) to define the threat, but only a mysterious and powerful warrior named Glaeken (Scott Glenn) is equipped to face the horror within The Keep.
Wilson’s novel shares the thematic thrust of Mann’s film (Mann even wrote the screenplay). Even without Molosar lurking nearby, the Keep is a place where the barely-contained wretchedness of its characters comes to light. By being isolated from the outdoor world in a massive tomb, the Keep exacerbates the monsters dwelling inside it.
A way to look at “The Keep” (both the novel and the film) is to consider how it retells Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in a World War II setting: Molosar is Dracula, Ian McKellen’s Dr. Cuza is Renfield, Alberta Watson is Mina and Scott Glenn’s Glaeken is a one-man fearless vampire killer.
“The Keep” is too silly to merit explicit references to the horrors of Nazism, but too serious to settle for being just artful camp. Whenever Molosar attacks, it’s like watching a miniature version of the “Raiders of the Lost Ark” Wrath of God climax.
Despite an ensemble cast that would be the envy of most prestige films, most of the actors are misused or not bringing their best work to light. There’s no real center, though the dueling intensity of Prochnow and Byrne is the closest this comes to having one. McKellen, playing the film’s equivalent of Renfield, gives a performance that might have worked on stage but, sadly, is the only one on film I didn’t like (yes, he was even better in “Cats”).
The appearance of Molosar is a stunner, as the creature initially materializes as a contained body of smoke, later appearing like a sinister frog man, before a final transformation that makes him look exactly like Oscar Isaac in “X-Men: Apocalypse.”
At the time of its release, “The Keep” was viewed as a misstep from the director of “Thief” (1981) and considered to be another styler-over-substance music video-infused blunder. Criticism that Mann was a director whose work reflected an MTV aesthetic would follow him as he made the groundbreaking television series “Miami Vice” and the commercially unsuccessful, eventual cult favorite “Manhunter” (1986).
A true appreciation for Mann’s ability to not only create breathtaking imagery but to encourage inspired turns from his actors wouldn’t begin until “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) and “Heat” (1995) won over audiences and critics.
In 1983, Mann was in the same ballpark as Ridley Scott, Alan Parker and Adrian Lynne – accused of being a visualist lacking humanity in his work. Why are we now far more appreciative of these filmmakers and their glossy, color-soaked and dazzling imagery?
Perhaps because the MTV look was a moment and not the standard and because all of these directors (and others, like David Fincher and Spike Jonze) demonstrated their ability to shape works with narratives, themes and layers that matched and surpassed the visual elements.
I’m not letting Mann completely off the hook for “The Keep,” as the wild tonal shifts (more like genre switches), oversized quality of some of the acting and the film’s tendency to be ridiculous and awesome at the same time are all on him.
Nevertheless, the film’s tortured history reveals how a workable but disliked by producers two-hour cut was viciously chopped down to a running time barely over 90 minutes. The studio kept cutting away at the film’s dramatic structure and undermined the film’s already surreal quality.
FAST FACT: ‘The Keep’ earned just $4 million at the U.S. box office in 1983.
“The Keep” arrived as a Christmas release after being pushed back from summer and was met with total audience and critic resistance. It’s no wonder, as some scenes are nearly incoherent – having either read Wilson’s novel or being familiar with “Dracula” is the only help one has in following the narrative.
The rich backstory for Glenn’s character, in particular, now comes across as rushed, as the love story feels especially forced.
Yet, even as a wounded work, the imagery always mesmerizes. Like Fincher’s own studio-damaged “Alien 3” (1992), his film debut in fact, the ability of the director often shines through the slice-and-dice job of the studio-mandated edits.
“Alien 3,” with its scenes of a nearly all-male cast (minus one) running through dark corridors, being stalked by a monster, actually has a lot in common, cosmetically, and thematically, with “The Keep.”
There’s a TV version floating around on YouTube that offers moments not in the theatrical cut that flesh out the climax better. The trailer also highlights moments that either aren’t in the final cut or survived the theatrical cut and are quite brilliant.
Case in point: while the semi-frequent uses of slow motion don’t always serve the film, the shot of McKellen walking in slow motion past the crosses, which illuminate with his passing, is a killer shot. So is the landscape of the final battle, which becomes mythic and cosmic.
The contribution of Tangerine Dream to the score is another touch that was also criticized at the time of release but has softened over time. Has the resurgence of 1980s pop culture made us more tolerant of synth pop?
Actually, the Tangerine Dream scores for “Firestarter” (1984), “Risky Business” (1983), “Sorcerer” (1977) and “The Keep” have always been beautiful, rich in atmosphere and layered. However, I disagree with anyone who feels the Tangerine Dream score that replaced Jerry Goldsmith’s for Ridley Scott’s “Legend” (1985) was acceptable.
“The Keep” often reappears on various streaming channels and is far better than just a curiosity item. Mann was making something special, the studio didn’t get it and the result is a work that was reshaped, compromised and unfinished.
While Mann once stated that the death of the film’s visual effects artist Wally Veevers guarantees the film will remain incomplete, film lovers like myself still hope for a remastered director’s cut with all the missing parts intact (or even just the footage from the TV version cut back in to make it less chopped up).
“The Keep” is far from perfect but, like Molosar, is buried and worthy of finding new life after being long hidden from view.