Film Torments: The Keep (1983)

IN THIS WEEK’S Torment, Dan examines what happens when an auteur and a studio clash over madness.

Michael Mann, to this day, remains one of the most interesting directors to still be making a living in Hollywood. Though best known for his gritty urban thrillers like Heat, Collateral and the seminal Miami Vice (the series), Mann has always worked outside the box, even in his more pedestrian efforts. (Miami Vice, the film.) He also knows how to pace himself, capturing a mystique and surety of hand that few directors of his longevity have managed to retain.

The Keep is Mann’s black sheep, if you’ll forgive the rhyme. A bizarre amalgamation of horror, fantasy and sheer WTF, Mann’s third directorial effort is a confusing, sloppily edited logistical nightmare, under-utilising great actors in a whirling mish-mash of genres and tones. It’s also eerily atmospheric, with committed performances and a brilliant, ethereal soundtrack by Krautrock favourites Tangerine Dream, as well as being lathered with more dry ice than a Meat Loaf video on the set of Phantom of the Opera.

Adapted from the F. Paul Wilson novel of the same name – which, from what I can tell, lead to a series of batshit insane sequels – the film follows several characters’ actions in the titular structure, opening on principled Nazi Captain Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) occupying the town. We soon discover that the keep is holding back the release of an unfathomably powerful demon named Molasar (Michael Carter), who plans to use the cantankerous Dachau inmate Dr. Cuda (Ian McKellen, sporting a comedy American accent) to smuggle out the one item that keeps it in check.

In the middle of all this is Cuda’s daughter, Eva (Alberta Watson); the quietly psychopathic SS officer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne); a nutty priest (Robert Prosky), and the laser-eyed, disintegration man-meat named – say it with me now – Glaeken Trismegistus (Scott Glenn), the only being capable of matching Molasar’s power. He’s a vampire, but the film doesn’t tell you.

Still with me? In case you didn’t guess from that wild pair of paragraphs, the plot of The Keep is difficult to adequately summarise with brevity. The film struggles to keep a steady grip on its various, disparate plot threads, lurching from the political and ethical power struggle between Woermann and Kaempffer to the pseudo-mysticism of Molasar to the wholly unexplained Glaeken and his Easy Rider motorcycle travels through Romania. Fundamentally, the film fails to establish its stakes or truly flesh out its central characters, resulting in a severe disconnection on an emotional or even logical level.

There are several reasons for this, not the least of which was the death of special effects honcho Wally Veevers, setting post-production back by months from an already exhausting, 22-week long production, forcing Mann to complete over 250 effect shots himself. Another reason, perhaps even more critical, was studio interference. Mann’s original cut clocked in at 210 minutes. Paramount demanded a two hour cut; when this didn’t test well with audiences, they hacked it down to 96 minutes, ignoring Mann’s protestations to the contrary.

Probably due to the difficulties surrounding the production, Mann has seldom spoken about The Keep since its 1983 release, but he has always mentioned his intention to draw on fairy-tale lore and its conflict with Freudian, psychological interpolations. The Keep is both intentionally and unintentionally dream-like – the former for its use of surreal architecture (twisted roofs, endless corridors) and Expressionist lighting; the latter for its glaring gaps in the plot, unfinished sound design and rushed editing – but it also presents a gritty take on moral conflict at the heart of Nazism.

I shouldn’t be reminded of Batman & Robin during a Nazi-laden occult horror, but here we are.

These grounded elements and the paranormal elements do not mesh because they are operating on completely different levels. Woermann’s conflict between his duty and his ethics, personified by the coldly discerning Kaempffer, give both Byrne and Prochnow enough opportunities to shine despite their limited screen-time. Put simply, their exchanges are far more engaging than a random demon blowing people’s heads up for no real reason, and especially moreso than the grunting storm-eyed dude with four lines of dialogue having dream-sex but also maybe real sex.

The film is not poorly-made, nor does it showcase poor performances. Ian McKellen is suitably hammy when required but the gravitas of his presence is power enough, and Watson does what she can with extremely limiting material, including an ill-advised rape scene. (Good thing Paramount didn’t cut that unnecessary bollocks, eh?) Prochnow is given the widest scope for his ability and he, unsurprisingly, excels, channelling the inner turmoil of a man who slowly seems to realise that he’s on the wrong side but is powerless to act upon it.

That conflict is part of why The Keep is such a frustrating sit. The cinematography is often superb but is strung through with sloppy editing. The performances are uniformly great but aren’t given enough time to settle. The John Box set design is imposing and Alex Johnson’s lighting is nuanced, but the film jumps around so much we’re unable to appreciate any of it as we should.

Also, quarter-staff laser cannons.

The clash between cosmic horror and human suffering is interesting but never fleshed out. Molasar’s final costume is truly menacing, but the fog effects that precede him are flaccid. For every moment of effective narrative cohesion, there’s about seven more that throw it to the wind. One step forward, two steps back.

It’s easy to blame Paramount for hacking the film to pieces, and a good portion of blame certainly lies with the decision, but the film was dogged by production problems either way. Mann, by his own admission, went into production without a completed script and was constantly re-writing it, often presenting his changes to the cast on the day. McKellen’s ageing make-up took five hours to apply; 12 days in a row, after having this make-up done, he was not required on set.

Given that, I’m not convinced an extra 30 minutes would have given the film enough time to successfully resolve its current problems. The theoretical two-hour cut would certainly help, and another half hour of Mann’s beautiful direction would be lovely, but half the thing is in slow-motion anyway so I doubt there’d be much more coherence to be found, even during the baffling second half. It’s a fascinating failure that, while undoubtedly hamstrung by studio interference, is ultimately undone by its own portentousness.

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