The Keep (1983) review

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“Then what draws people out in the middle of a rainy night?”

“Dreams.”

Michael Mann fans are a passionate bunch.  They’ll corner you and extol the virtues of his films until they’re blue in the face.  God forbid they’re within earshot of a mention of the topic of cinematic bank robberies.  I know this because I count myself among their number.  I have personally bored people to death discussing the emotional power of the final shot of Heat as Moby’s God Moving Over the Face of the Waters plays.  I may have even teared up at times.  And yet, I had never seen The Keep.  Despite Mann’s filmography and television work being widely celebrated, The Keep is never more than a footnote, at most discussed in hushed, conspiratorial tones like an admission of seeing Bigfoot or an alien craft.  Mann working with a tremendous cast (Scott Glen, Jurgen Prochnow, Sir Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne, William Morgan Sheppard), a score by soundtrack and electronic legends Tangerine Dream (who also scored Mann’s magnificent Thief, and most recently, Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V) – how can this be anything other than a masterpiece?

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Sadly, while the parts and passion there, the film is a nearly incomprehensible mess.  That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth watching, as despite the problems, there’s much that’s rewarding here.  The bones of something excellent were laid out by Mann and the production crew, but it just never comes together.  Mann’s script is clearly ambitious, and attempts to delve into the nature of evil and corruption, of the courage of maintaining one’s soul in battle against evil (an attempted meditation on Nietzsche’s now well-worn aphorism, “Beward that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”), and the contrast and comparison of human evil versus a cosmic, universal concept of evil and corruption.  Unfortunately, much of the human drama, the dialog, and the motivations don’t entirely work.  Mann reaches for the stars, but stumbles along the way and comes up far short.

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Mann is nothing if not a stylist, and while proper exercise of a strong style can strengthen a work, The Keep quickly begins to resemble an hour and a half long music video for Tangerine Dream’s synths.  With the weakness of the dialog, I wonder if the film would in fact play better without it.  If anything, the visuals and the score are the reason to see this film.  One of the great pleasures of film are beautiful images, of extended shots that thrill and inspire, and The Keep has more than it’s share of gorgeous, widescreen cinematography  – a ship in passage at dawn, a fog-enshrouded Romanian forest, a man crossing a bridge to the monolithic walls of the keep.   The sets are beautiful and eerie, particularly the Cyclopean keep itself that suggests a vast history.  There are wonderful cinematic moments, like the beautiful introduction of Jurgen Prochnow’s conflicted Nazi Woermann – a pan down through the dark Romanian forest as the Nazi caravan of trucks trundles over muddy roads, cut with Prochnow lighting a cigar (the dim light of the soul he’s kept despite his employ in the Nazi warmachine, perhaps?) and finally, his face through a rain-drenched windshield.  There’s also a great zoom-out that shows the vast scale of the keep’s inner recesses.  Unfortunately, these moments a good film do not make.

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There are rumours of a three hour original cut, and perhaps that version would restore the grand operatic vision that Mann was attempting.  There’s a sense, watching this film now, of what could have been.  Not only of what could have been had the film been tweaked until it worked, but also of what Mann could accomplish had he done more films in the fantasy and science fiction space.  There’s more than a little of Alien in the misted halls of the keep covered in desiccated corpses and ruined war machines.  Continuing on the Alien thread, The Keep reminds me a little of Ridley Scott’s theatrical cut of Legend – a choppy, messy film with beautiful images and a tremendous Tangerine Dream score.  Like Legend, I can’t help but be enthralled by The Keep despite its flaws (for the record, I think The Keep is much more flawed than Legend).

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I can’t recommend The Keep – it’s clumsy, almost laughably so at times (the sex scene that comes out of nowhere with John Glen’s mysterious Glaeken, for example), and it’s nearly unintelligible.  Yet, there’s just enough there thematically to provoke thought, and it’s an undeniably fascinating failure.  And those images.  If you’ve read this far and you think, “Yeah, I think I still want to watch it, ” then it’s probably worth it.  You know what you’re getting into.  For the rest of you, steer clear.  It’s not scary, and it’s far too messy to recommend.  A beautiful disaster.

5/10

 

20 thoughts on “The Keep (1983) review

  1. The film is still held in high regard by collectors (maybe given its unavailability) and a much belated release has been hoped for years. I love its early atmosphere but it does lose that after about 30mins of watching. Its great that Netflix UK now have it so people here can make their own minds up.

    1. Agreed about it just going haywire after 30 mins. Still very glad I watched it, and it’s admirable in its intentions.
      Was very happy to see Netflix UK had the proper widescreen version up with the Tangerine Dream score.

  2. I remember the many times I have seen this on the shelves of many video stores, but never had the chance to see it. Now I may give it a try. Who knows, I may just enjoy it

  3. The novel, The Keep, by F. Paul Wilson was one of my faves when I was younger. It was a hard hitting horror and sci-fi/fantasy combination tale that really stood tall with the likes of King, Barker, Lumley and other popular novels/novelists at the time. It actually had some good scares. So when I first saw this film adaptation, I was very disappointed with the film. I have watched it since and enjoy it more now, though its clear that there are some stammers in the storytelling. But it does have originality which is the one thing it has in common with the novel.

    1. I had exactly the same reaction, and I’ve carried a (perhaps unfair) resentment of this film since I saw it on video in the late ’80s. Maybe I’ll re-watch the move, then re-read the book. (To try it in the opposite order would probably be less than a good idea.)

      Btw, I’ve heard that the short story “Cuts” was F. Paul Wilson’s ultimate response to his experience with this film. I guess the best revenge is writing well! 🙂

  4. I got about thirty minutes in and just couldn’t go any further and this is from a huge Mann fan. Manhunter, I believe, is the best movie to feature Hannibal. That is how high I regard Mann and his work.

  5. The big revelation here for me was that someone actually made it to the final shot of “Heat.” I’ve tried watching that move several times and always lose interest partway through.
    Anyway, I remember reading and watching “The Keep” around the time it was released, and I think a lot of the problem was the source material. The book just doesn’t have the aspirations of the movie, nor is it enough of a foundation to hold them up. As a vampire-Nazi book, it’s not bad, but as a grand battle between Good and Evil, it’s just a flop.

  6. Having read the book recently (but not seen the film), this sounds like it’s probably a fairly faithful adaptation. The book has a romance come out of nowhere, too, and it drags the rest of it down from what would otherwise have been a five-star horror novel.

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