Written by: F. Paul Wilson (novel), Michael Mann (screenplay)
Directed by: Michael Mann
Starring: Scott Glenn, Ian McKellen and Alberta Watson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďYou have... death around you."
The Keep has always been a curiosity for me; Michael Mann has always been one of my favorite film-makers, and, with a few notable exceptions (such as Last of the Mohicans), his career has been defined by masterfully crafted cinematic games of cops and robbers. I always found it interesting that he followed up his minor neon-noir masterpiece, Thief, with what appeared to be high concept fantasy-horror pulp in The Keep. This is material that Mann never returned to, choosing instead to retreat to familiar crime-laden territory over the next few decades. Having finally seen it, I can say that my pre-conceived notions were pretty reductive--yes, the film is full of evil spirits and exploding Nazi heads and whatnot--but Mann brings both his trademark technical precision and faint art house sensibilities to this highly ambitious (but ultimately deficient) adaptation of F. Paul Wilsonís original novel.
The title refers to a huge citadel in the heart of Romania during the second World War. When the German army arrives to occupy the remote village, they unwittingly unleash the keepís inhabitant, which is some kind of ancient, malevolent entity that proceeds to wreak havoc--sort of. Basically, it occasionally kills some Nazi soldiers, all the while still hanging out at the keep. Because they donít know what to do with it, the Nazis enlist a Jewish scholar (Ian McKellen) from one of their concentration camps to help them decipher the mystery. His daughter (Alberta Watson) accompanies him and eventually meets an equally mysterious stranger (Scott Glenn) that might be linked with the keepís demonic entity.
This is all played rather broadly by Mann, hewing more to sweeping high fantasy with a tinge of dark romance tossed in--the stuff with Glenn and Watson feels a lot like Starman, which wouldnít be released for another year. Itís also an element of the film that, quite frankly, doesnít make a lick of sense, a fact that unfortunately harangues much of The Keep. This is likely due to its condensed nature--anytime you deal with adapting a huge novel, you deal with some nips and tucks but are hopefully left with a sufficiently distilled version of the original. However, in this case, Mannís original film was also pared down significantly; his first cut reportedly ran about three and a half hours long, so you can imagine what cutting it down to 95 minutes does.
I can only assume that the original cut actually explained a lot more. Though the existing version allows one to faintly sketch a line between all of the dots, its lucidity leaves a lot to be desired. Glennís character especially seems tacked on--we have no clue who is his other than an antagonist for the demon at the center of the story (whom we also learn very little about). Likewise, the romance between he and Watson is undercooked, relying on old dark romance tropes to convey this angle--Watson is awestruck in his presence, for whatever reason, and itís possible weíre meant to think heís got ulterior, malicious motives with her; after all, the ďevilĒ demon seems quite congenial at times--he cures McKellen of his illness and even grants him his youth, and this is not to mention his Nazi-slaying. Are we really supposed to be wary of a guy who spends time reducing Hitlerís finest to a dusty pulp? I was disappointed to find these aspects underdeveloped; if nothing else, Mannís career has thrived on compelling portraits of both heroes and rogues. Maybe his meditative shade-of-grey approach doesnít work as well when itís transplanted from modern, urban dramas to a broadly stroked tale of good vs. evil.
Mann tries his best to elevate the muddled, inert script, and itís only through his sheer force of will and confidence that The Keep remains undeniably compelling. He often commands the frame, filling it with incredible images--the keep itself is this spectacular monolith with dank, creepy interiors, proving that Mann doesnít need dazzling, neon cityscapes to be evocative. He gets an aural assist from Tangerine Dream, whom he carried over from Thief, and their signature electronic hums and pulses work remarkably well even when set against the anachronistic 40s backdrop. With Mann, this stuff is rarely in question--he has an eye and an ear for sublime, moments where he overwhelms audiences with his painterly compositions and Tangerine Dreamís sonic assault.
In this case, heís probably also hoping that those moments will cause viewers to forget about the sloppy, disconnected script. Mann unfortunately canít outrun this--the story tries to be elliptical and lyrical, but itís also super on-the-nose; its status as a parable is obvious, as the demon thatís been unleashed is represented of an ancient, all-consuming evil that will consume mankind. When presented in the context of Nazis and World War II, it plays as weird, revisionist fantasy, as if such a horrible chapter in history could be reduced to such simple terms presented here. The Keep is an easy film to appreciate--itís certainly a failure, but itís one born out of huge ambition rather than incompetence or laziness; itís filled good performances, particularly the ones by Gabriel Byrne and McKellen, who starts the film in old age makeup that disconcertingly makes you believe he hasnít aged for 30 years. By the end of the film, it seems like Mann seemingly gave him his training wheels for Lord of the Rings, as his character is compelled to histrionic displays during the climax.
I donít know if Mannís original vision of The Keep will ever be restored; my gut reaction says it wonít, and itís possible that even the existing cut wonít even make it to DVD. Paramount still hasnít released it, and weíre 14 years into the formatís lifespan--it seems like it would have been a no-brainer to capitalize on Mannís current films, but alas. For now, you have to settle for the version currently streaming on Netflix, which isnít bad since the film has obviously been remastered and looks fairly good. This is likely just as well, anyway, as I can see this being disappointing for a lot of folks. While it is distinctly recognizable as a Michael Mann film, itís not one of his better efforts (and might be his worst proper feature film); as a horror film, it only has sparse echoes of gothic horror trappings--The Keep begins as an old dark crypt movie but ends as something that anticipates the sorcery-laden fantasy films that would populate the 80s. Altogether, itís something thatís definitely an odd curiosity, but itís not really a keeper. Rent it!
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