Michael Mann | 91 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 18 / R
Michael Mann is arguably best known for his modern, urban, slick, intricate crime thrillers — films like Heat, Collateral and Miami Vice; all movies that I have greatly enjoyed (yes, including Miami Vice). So it’s a bit of a surprise to discover his second feature in the director’s chair was a supernatural fantasy/horror set during World War II. I confess that I’d never even heard of it before I read Mike’s piece at Films on the Box the other day, after which my interest was sufficiently piqued to make sure to watch it (obviously, as there’s now this review).
And it’s really good… for about half an hour or so. The opening sees a platoon (or whatever) of Nazis arrive in a remote Romanian mountain village to occupy a deserted castle for some kind of defence purposes that don’t look to make a great deal of strategic sense. But shh, because the castle — the titular keep — has walls lined with metal crosses and, spookily, is built back to front: as Jürgen Prochnow’s character, the One Good Nazi, observes, “this place was not constructed to keep something… out.” Oh dear.
At this point Mann — on both writing (adapted from a novel by F. Paul Wilson) and directing duties — has managed to turn in a film that is genuinely creepy, with an effective sense of foreboding and mystery. But the longer it goes on, the more evident it becomes that chunks of the story are missing, the result of the studio hacking away at Mann’s three-hour-ish cut. Events become convoluted and borderline nonsensical, and whatever thematic points the film has to make about evil and belief get lost in the mix. I’m certain there’s something there, because long-ish discussions between various pairs of characters remain, but what Mann was driving at, God only knows.
Should we long for a Director’s Cut, then? Maybe that would be an improvement, but I’m not convinced it would be good per se. You see, the film doesn’t just stick to giving us Nazis vs Whatever The Keep Contains, oh no. First the SS turn up, led by a Properly Evil Nazi, played straight by Gabriel Byrne. Escalation, great. Then there’s Ian McKellen as a professor drafted in to make sense of the keep’s mysteries. Also great — even the Good Nazi is going to have to die, right? Who better to root for than a saved-from-a-concentration-camp Jewish professor.
But oh, then we meet Scott Glenn, and his glowing purple eyes, riding across Europe on a motorbike to somehow save the day. And that entire element of the film is awfully hokey. Not to mention that it leads to a morally dubious sexual liaison: Glenn persuade some border guards to let him pass using only the power of his glowy eyes; later, about five minutes after meeting the ostensible heroine (McKellen’s character’s daughter, the only female), he’s managed to persuade her to wriggle around naked on his lap — coincidence? I guess this sequence is meant to be titillating, but the random grabbing, fidgetiness, soft focus, and the film’s constant softcore porno music (which naturally continues unabated during this segment) make it just laughable.
There are plus points, but they all come with a commensurate downside. The creature is well-realised at first, with some nice animated effects that are more effective than much of the over-cooked CGI spectacle we’d get today. The more we see of him, however, the less power he holds — he ends up essentially a very tall man. OK, it’s a bit better than that makes it sound, but the mysterious billowing smoke was spookier. The film on the whole is nicely shot, with some real standout moments of cinematography. But slow-mo and a smoke machine both get overused by the end, lending many of the visuals a tacky ’80s edge.
So too the score by Tangerine Dream, which has the odd moody moment but also plenty of cringe-inducing synths. Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner is a good example of how this most ’80s of sounds can age well; The Keep is an example of when it can’t. (For more on that element in particular, do see the ghost of 82’s review.) And talking of sound, what the bloody hell is going on with the accents? This Romanian village seems to be located somewhere in the US, including McKellen offering an OTT Chicago twang. Even his considerable acting skills get buried beneath that.
One thing the film never manages to be is remotely scary. It’s not aiming for cheap jump- or gore-based shocks (although there is a little goriness, it’s quite light; triply so by today’s standards), but it doesn’t manage any significant senses of dread or creepiness. As noted, early on it seems to be heading in the right direction — even the secluded mountain village, nestled in a harsh landscape but with greener-than-green grass and garishly painted houses, and towered over by the foreboding slab of stone that is the titular structure, is an uncanny start — but it never makes good on the promise.
I’d love to see a remake of The Keep; one with a boldness and a vision to take what works, ditch what doesn’t, and craft a suitably creepy Nazis-vs-the-supernatural horror movie out of what’s left. Of course, I’m thinking specifically about what I feel works and doesn’t — anyone who’s read the novel, which apparently is much chunkier and ties into other works by the author, would surely have a very different opinion and despise what I’d do given half a chance. Indeed, though the film has been disowned by Mann (reportedly he’s even blocked it being released on DVD), it has quite the cult following — look it up on LOVEFiLM, or at the boards on IMDb, and four- or five-star ratings abound, with people numbering it among their favourite films ever.
I would love to join their ranks, because there are numerous exciting ideas and moments of quality filmmaking to be found here; but I won’t be, because there’s too much muddled dross packed in around them. The result is that quite-rare thing: a decidedly mediocre film that I’m actually glad I’ve seen. But, unless someone wants to hire me for that remake, never again.
This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2012. Read more here.