Nether Regions 10.26.10: The Keep
Posted by Chad Webb on 10.26.2010
Michael Mann's 2nd feature film as a director explores the supernatural, Nazis, weird looking castles, and the talent of Tangerine Dream....
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Ian McKellen, Jurgen Prochnow, and Scott Glenn Directed By: Michael Mann Written By: Michael Mann (based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson) Running Time: 96 minutes Release Date: December 16, 1983 Missing Since: 1990 Existing Formats:VHS Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: This was scheduled for a DVD release, but all the copies got lost in the keep forever.
These days, Michael Mann is a name most moviegoers are familiar with. He stood at the helm for many great titles including Collateral, The Insider, and Heat, as well as some underrated efforts such as Manhunter, Miami Vice, and Public Enemies. But in the early 80's, Mann had only one feature film under his belt, Thief, and one made-for-TV movie called The Jericho Mile. In retrospect, his sophomore selection would be the peculiar step-child compared to the rest of his canon, a supernatural thriller set in Nazi occupied Romania. It is called The Keep, and it is a mystifying piece of work, yet also hilarious and impossible to take your eyes away from. By the time the story has run its course, viewers will have a difficult time deciding just how freakishly satisfying the preceding train wreck was.
Cpt. Woermann looks uneasy as the caretaker describes the keep's history.
Our tale kicks off in Romania, where the Nazi Wehrmacht have come upon a deserted citadel that they plan on guarding to maintain control of the Dinu Mountain Pass. A caretaker and his son greet Captain Klaus Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) as they all enter the mysterious castle. They will not stand in the soldiers' way, but warn that no one stays overnight. The caretaker only guesses as to who built the structure and who owns it. Eventually, the soldiers begin messing with various silver crosses on the wall, hoping it will land them some money. Their actions unleash a dangerous force that begins obliterating the occupants of the Keep (the castle, the building, whatever). This results in another Nazi troop of SS Einsatzkommandos arriving to take control. The new leader, Major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) suspects that the killings stem from local partisan activity. The town priest (Robert Prosky), in a desperate attempt to save some friends about to be sent to a concentration camp, fools the Nazis into bringing a Jewish professor and his daughter (Alberta Watson) to the Keep to help in deciphering messages left by the entity. The professor is Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen), and he is quickly enlisted to aid the entity. An enigmatic stranger (Scott Glenn) then travels far and wide to foil any plan this malevolent force has.
If you're confused by that summary, you're probably not alone, unless of course you read the book. The Keep is a puzzling excursion, and in the end, I'm not sure who the villain is, what their goal was, or what the purpose of "the Keep" ultimately was. On the surface, it appears pretty cut and dry in the form of a classic good vs. evil story with the Nazis and Jews in the middle of the hoopla. And all the while, the Nazis never falter in continuing to exterminate the Jews. Sadly though, this is anything but "cut and dry", and while it is not hard to comprehend the hero and villain aspects, the list of viewer questions should be a mile long. The Keep was a flop at the box office and a failure with critics, but it has since built a significant cult following, apparently not enough of one to warrant a DVD release however. There are fan sites, one of which wishes for an anniversary release and director's cut. Mann's original cut was 3 ½ hours long. Whoa. I'm not sure anyone could have survived that.
I would certainly accept that this is a guilty pleasure for many people. It has a distinctly likable lameness that is reminiscent of other 80's fare like Masters of the Universe or The Beastmaster. But back to my top 3 favorite things. Mann was still searching for his stride at this stage of his career, but his inherent sense of capturing an ominous, moody, and dense atmosphere was near flawless. Visually this is an enthralling picture, but occasionally in a negative way. The Keep might be a complex place, but there is no denying that it is filled with smoke because Mann evidently learned how to use smoke machines and fell in love. Smoke/fog/steam saturates every nook and cranny of the Keep, and before the entity takes a physical shape, he is a fog demon of some kind with bright red eyes. Apart from the monster lurking somewhere inside the castle, I'd be worried about tripping and falling due to my vision being blinded by the intensely thick fog.
A map of the area around "The Keep" taken from the board game.
The special effects of the 1980's, particularly in the science-fiction genre (sometimes horror) have not aged very well. The Keep falls into that category. When the villain strikes, he bombards victims with bright lights and red lightning bolts. These same lights are also used to improve people, as we see with Dr. Cuza. The final confrontation involves a spectacularly cheesy laser light extravaganza that Pink Floyd would have been proud to use in one of their shows. At this point of the film, it matters little who is winning because the lasers are everywhere and you couldn't look away even if you wanted to. Mann makes sure they are sufficiently piercing. He must have known the material was weak as he drowns the set in overblown effects like dramatic lighting to potentially disguise the artificiality of the sets and the bizarre qualities of the story.
Perhaps the most notable contribution to The Keep was not even Michael Mann at the director's chair, but the fact that he commissioned German electronic group Tangerine Dream to compose the score. They deliver non-classical music that is rather foreboding and psychedelic in nature, but is certifiably cheesy, and when it emerges for climactic moments, it hits the audience in the face with a head-on blast. Mann's genuinely creepy surroundings are immediately contradicted by the score, which induces laughter more than anything else. Mann is known for the intriguing scores in his films, but this tops them all in terms of being a totally out of left field choice. The majority of the time, the sequence is submerged in the music enough that we're listening more to the ridiculous sounds than paying attention to the story. The awesomely trashy scenes have plenty of smoke, laser lights, slow-motion running soldiers, and Tangerine Dream noise. All those elements fit together appropriately I suppose, but do not make any aesthetic sense when we recall that this is a horror film. Yes, it's supernatural horror, but still. The top 3 favorite things are all used to distract us from the indisputable truth that no one has a clue what's going on in The Keep.
The silliness is easier to absorb when one takes a gander at the cast. Jurgen Prochnow had already made a name for himself in the brilliant Das Boot, so his face would become more recognizable as the years rolled along. The choppiness from the trio of editors makes Prochnow's Captain Woermann (and a number of other characters) suffer in the long run. He realizes the threat and tries to convince his superior that the locals are not at fault, but once other characters spring to the forefront, his part is basically dropped. Gabriel Byrne is boundlessly nasty as his boss, Major Kaempffer. I firmly believe he could have turned into a legitimately worthwhile foe if just a little balance was exercised during the 96 minute running time.
Scott Glenn needs new contacts as the dude with a super long name.
Ian McKellen gets to start out as Dr. Cuza, a sickly cripple on his last breath, and morphs into a fully healed and manipulated slave to the entity who preaches his gospel with all the fire and brimstone only an actor like McKellen could do. Normally that would be fine, but this is The Keep and it is absurd, so McKellen's exaggerated speech and mannerisms compete with Tangerine Dream for number of unintentional laughs. Robert Prosky, not to be outdone by Sir Ian, plays Father Mihail Fonescu, the priest that saves the Cuzas. Before long, the limitless powers of the "dangerous force" transform Father Fonescu into a deranged lunatic. Scott Glenn is Glaeken Trismegestus, the silent savior from Greece that intimidates folks with his glowing eye trick that seems to do nothing except glow. The other Cuza is Eva, daughter of McKellen's Dr. Cuza, depicted by Alberta Watson. She and Glaeken have a lengthy soft-core sex scene that just does not belong here at all. They meet and screw with only some unimportant conversation in the middle.
F. Paul Wilson, author of the original novel, called the film "Visually intriguing, but otherwise utterly incomprehensible." Michael Mann has not had many kind words about The Keep either, citing it as evidence of what can happen when you tackle a production without a finished screenplay. Mann definitely amplifies his John Carpenter and F.W. Murnau influences in this kooky venture, but takes entirely too many risks where he should have pulled back and opted for the simpler path. The obvious comparison to The Keep is Raiders of the Lost Ark which also deals with Nazis and the supernatural, but if you take away the humor and the adventure, The Keep is what you're burdened with. Look for The Keep in the same section as David Lynch's Dune. Both have had a tough lifespan, but they do possess some corny charm.
I do wish that The Keep would receive a DVD release, but only under the right circumstances. If the release included interviews from the cast and crew, along with extra footage and funny commentary, I'd be on board in a second, but to just put this on a barebones DVD would be pointless. I'll leave you with an exchange between the demon (yes he has a name) and Ian McKellen's Dr. Cuza. Enjoy:
Dr. Cuza: Then, what you sense is my fate in a death camp? Molasar: A place where people gather to die. Dr. Cuza: A place where people are murdered! Molasar: My people are murdered? Dr. Cuza: Yes! And others, from all over Europe! Molasar: Who does this? Dr. Cuza: Their Leader... in Berlin. And the soldiers in black. Molasar: I WILL DESTROY THEM!
Did I mention The Keep has a board game? It does. You can get a full detailed description (with pictures) by clicking here.
- Make sure to check out Excelsior, the new book from 411mania veteran George Sirois. I just finished reading it and found it to be highly entertaining. He draws on a lot of influences that I know many people, especially readers of this site, will appreciate and enjoy.
- I had heard that Eric Clapton's new CD Clapton wasn't very good, but then I saw Rolling Stone gave it 4 stars, so I decided to take a chance since I'm a Clapton fan. I thought it was a very solid outing from him. It was nice to hear him relaxed and chill, delivering some terrific blues tracks, as well as more standard Clapton fare. "Autumn Leaves" is my favorite track, but it's filled with some upbeat catchy tunes.
- This week I watched Seven Swords, a Dragon Dynasty martial arts period epic, which had some outstanding fight sequences, but was a bit too mediocre. I also saw the DTV flick Frozen, which I had wanted to review, but after seeing the result, I'm not that anxious.
- I recently went to a Muse concert and it really was a fabulous show, The stage set-up was unique and eye-catching, and the band used almost as many laser lights as The Keep did. Still, they played all the songs I was hoping to hear, and the crowd was really into it the entire time. A Canadian group named Metric opened for them, and they weren't that special, but could have been worse. I recommend everyone hear "Uprising" and "Time is Running Out" live at some point.