Michael Mann wrote and directed his first theatrical feature in 1981: Thief, recently released by the Criterion Collection. It was a financial and critical success, still respected for its neon blasted, realistic portrayal of the criminal underworld. Mann has spent his career returning to similar worlds, focusing on expert men who get shit done.
Early on, however, Mann made a significant misstep so inconsistent with the rest of his oeuvre that I had to double check that this was the same filmmaker who would later direct Heat and Collateral. I’m speaking, of course, of The Keep, Mann’s 1983 period horror film set in WWII Romania. The first scene shows Nazi soldiers arriving in a small Romanian village, taking shelter in the titular keep, a large stone temple with 108 white crosses embedded in the walls. The unit is warned not to touch the crosses, but two covetous soldiers see the silver crosses as their ticket to wealth, and remove one from the wall.
What follows is a horrific fairy tale that quickly devolves into pure fever dream. Entrapped deep within the walls of the Keep is an ethereal monster called Molisar, and the removal of the crosses is his ticket to freedom. This vampiric demon is bound to the temple grounds by an ancient talisman, and spends the film devouring human souls to gain the strength necessary to take his destruction elsewhere.
Michael Mann adapted the screenplay from the novel by F. Paul Wilson, but the 96-minute film differs significantly from the source material. Apparently, Mann’s original cut of the film was over three hours and the studio was responsible for this shorter version. The slicing and dicing reduces the film to an unsatisfying, incomprehensible blur, full of erratic characterizations and narrative inconsistencies.
For example, it takes nearly 25 minutes of screen time from the soldier’s arrival to Molisar’s release. Narratively, this series of events amounts to nothing more than the opening scene of Raiders – it sets up the world and introduces our monster, but only one major character is introduced. We’re left hurtling towards the end of our 96 minute run time at break neck speed, but guided by individual scenes that have no immediacy to them. A three-hour film can function at a certain pace – this pace, to be specific. Yet cramming these semi-lyrical scenes into some sort of competent pattern just doesn’t work here. Each scene plays out slowly, making the illogical jumps between scenes far more noticeable. Everything contextual or informative happens off screen, leaving us with a disjointed, ultimately frustrating journey that ends with a quick, unsatisfying climax.
The Keep is a definite pariah among Mann’s other work, but that’s not to say it has none of his DNA. For The Keep, Mann once again turned to Tangerine Dream, the electronic group that supplied Thief with its memorable score. Here, their score effectively contributes to The Keep’s lyrical tone, but it also defines it unmistakably as a product of the 80s, and while Tangerine Dream worked so well for Thief and Friedkin’s Sorcerer, it tends to feel out of place in this WWII horror yarn.
Perhaps Mann wanted to make something other than a period fable or haunted-house horror film, something more dreamlike, and there is little doubt that Tangerine Dream’s score is the perfect soundtrack to a dream. The Keep often operates as a dream, embodying a weird fugue state that tries to hypnotize viewers into accepting this on screen world. There are several instances when characters awake suddenly from their own dreams, only to be manipulated by the film’s weird desires.
The most noticeable instance of the dreamlike machinery of the film is the appearance of Scott Glenn’s character Glaeken Trismegestus (insert pronunciation guide here). Once Molisar is released into the Keep, Glaeken awakens immediately, gets on a boat, and travels to Romania, using some very Jedi-esque mind tricks on the way. We soon learn that he’s Molisar’s nemesis / guardian / babysitter, and has arrived to make sure the monster remains within the stone fortress.
Glaeken Trismegestus is the ultimate deux ex machina, and he represents one of The Keep’s biggest problems – most of the characters are exceptionally flat. I have no doubt that they were more fleshed out in the original cut, but their schizophrenic actions make no sense here. Ian McKellen plays the Jewish Dr. Theodore Cuza, summoned with his daughter from the gates of a Concentration Camp. Literally minutes after Cuza’s daughter is nearly raped by Nazi soldiers, she falls into bed with Glaeken Trismegestus. Whom she just met. Glaeken himself is reduced to a two dimensional creature of destiny, and this very 1980s sex scene was just another stop on his journey to salvation.
The most interesting aspect of The Keep is its stance on good and evil. All of the soldiers in the film are Nazis, but there’s a clear line drawn between good Nazis, the generic enlisted, and bad Nazis, the murdering, pilfering, swastika wearing scourge of Europe. These bad Nazis are the ones that assassinate several innocent villagers as soon as they arrive. Because they can?
This moral discussion removes us from the regular WWII story lines, allowing the players to enact much more personal battles within themselves. What we see are battles for the their souls, not battles for land and power. This lyrical film often feels like a biblical story that you never got around to reading – it’s the burning bush meets Lazarus meets that drop of LSD you just took.
The Keep sets Glaeken Trismegestus up as the Molisar’s enemy, but Molisar spends most of his time in conflict with McKellen’s Dr. Cuza. Molisar convinces Cuza that if he removes the talisman from the Keep, he will not only rid the village of the Nazi soldiers, but march directly to Berlin, obliterating every Nazi soldier on the way. It’s a tempting offer for Cuza, especially when Molisar magically heals him of a debilitating illness. But something is off…Molisar represents absolute power, which, as we know, corrupts absolutely. He represents salvation for the Jewish population, but he’s no true savior. This is a modern representation of Der Golem.
The Keep is a complete mess, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, which also means it has a weird sort of appeal. It’s definitely a Michael Mann movie, but it’s as though he was in his own confused fugue state while filming, wrestling with his own personal faith. On a technical level, there’s a grace and poise to each composition, from the smokey wides to the alluring close-ups. The monster is terrifying in its design, too.
Unfortunately, not enough time is spent on any one character to raise the stakes. Chess pieces fall, but without any anticipation or reason, until we arrive at a final battle that lasts for about a minute. You’ll watch with a confused face, but maybe you’ll get to some greater meaning in the end. If you’re like me, you’ll go for the inane, insane ride, stay for some hypnotizing imagery, and leave scratching your head.
About the Author
Matt Dartnell has been fascinated with horror films ever since his dad told him to never ever watch The Exorcist. This attraction has led to exhilarated evenings, sleepless nights, and a lifetime of messed up imagery to haunt him during midnight trips to the bathroom. Matt is in his final semester of film school where he emphasizes in critical theory. Follow him on Twitter @MattchstickMan.