You know, one of the staples of much of the 70’s and 80’s entertainment industry, be it in books, television, or movies, was showcasing the rampant drug culture of the time. One of the subjects that the entertainment industry liked to showcase from time to time as suffering from these insane levels of drug and alcohol abuse was in fact the entertainment industry itself. You would get depictions of everyone from the lowliest starlet wannabe to the most powerful Hollywood exec drunkenly snorting enough cocaine to kill anyone not named Hunter S. Thompson.
Sometimes they really overdid it. You would look in utter disbelief at the TV screen or the pages of your book while thinking that it was insane how much they were overplaying it. There was just no way that the drug and alcohol use was that bad in Hollywood, you would think to yourself, as there would simply have been no way that the place could have functioned if it had been that badly screwed up. Then, occasionally, you come across a product from that era of Hollywood’s history where you find yourself thinking that they might have just been underplaying exactly how insanely coked out of their minds everybody really was. The Keep is one of those films.
The Keep started its cinematic life in the way that many other films have. Someone somewhere in the studio power structure read a book that they thought was just amazing. In this case, that book was F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep. So enamored with the book was this someone somewhere in Hollywood that they convinced others to follow the tried and true Hollywood path of spending gobs of money on securing the rights for the book for big screen adaptation. They then set about deciding that they could rewrite the thing better than the author wrote it.
It was at that point that someone in Hollywood, likely drunk and coked out of their minds, decided that this intense horror novel should be turned over to Miami Vice’s Michael Mann. Yes, someone looked at the flashy Miami Vice visuals, fast cuts, and MTV style editing and said that they needed to have that look for their horror movie. Oh, and Mann was going to get to write the screenplay as well.
Anyone not under the influence of seriously mind altering substances should have been able to see that this formula was a disaster waiting to happen. Oddly, even as it made The Keep a spectacular failure with regards to being a “horror” film, it also somehow managed to make it interestingly viewable.
The Keep opens in 1941 Romania. A German battalion rolls into a small town and up to a strange looking fortress-like structure. Visually you immediately realize that something isn’t quite right about this place. It’s very obviously designed less to keep others out and more to keep something in. Inside of this fortress is a local villager who acts as the caretaker of the place. He warns the Nazi intruders, led by Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), that they should not stay in this place, and that they should leave the crosses embedded in the walls alone.
Okay… They’re Germans. More to the point, they’re Nazis. This is a horror film. A really creepy old guy has just spelled out to them what they’re absolutely not supposed to do in the opening act of the film. Anyone care to take a guess at what they in fact decide to do?
So, after the Nazis set up shop there, things start to go wrong. With flashy, crisp, MTV era music video-like visuals, the mood starts to get very dream-like and very dark. It is in fact these visuals that are one of the elements that make the film an amazingly watchable entry in the so-bad-it’s-good category of filmmaking. This is a visually gorgeous film that looks incredible on the small screen, and it likely looked just north of amazing on the big screen. Michael Mann may have missed the boat on giving the movie the mood and atmosphere of a true horror film, but he absolutely created a dream-like darkness in the film that is just beautiful to behold. It may often fail to make even a lick of sense, but it’s stunningly gorgeous to look at while it’s failing to make a lick of sense.
One of the things that go disastrously wrong for the Nazis is the discovery by two soldiers on guard duty that the nickel crosses in the walls are in fact silver crosses. So, on top of having decided to stay where they aren’t supposed to stay, these two compound matters by touching the crosses. Actually, they go beyond just touching by deciding to go and dig one out of the wall. They dance around in the fog in a really cool, slow motion visual style, they find a big cavern behind the cross, and then they die hideously.
Enter Molasar. Molasar is the big bad that the place was constructed to keep safely locked away from the outside world. Fortunately for the outside world, the crosses are not the only thing preventing him from strolling out into a war-torn country and really going to town on it. For now, Molasar has to be content with just killing Nazis inside of the keep.
By the way, Molasar is without a doubt, when not looking like a swirly, cloudy thing, the best live-action onscreen version of DC Comics’ Darkseid we’ll likely ever see at this point. I fully expect him to start kicking Superman’s ass at any moment here.
Woermann starts to worry about what’s happening since his men are suddenly getting killed all around him and he can’t figure out how or by whom. His requests for help are answered in the form of an S.S. attachment led by Gabriel Byrne. Major Kaempffer of the S.S. looks at the problem, finds what is to his way of thinking an eminently logical solution, and decides to start shooting groups of villagers.
Oh, yeah. Elsewhere in the world, a mystical Scott Glenn suddenly sits bolt upright in his bed. We know his character, Glaeken Trismegestus, is probably supposed to be the good guy here since he seems to be responding to the fact that the big bad is now breaking free. Oh, yeah, and his eyes occasionally glow green in contrasts to the evil Molasar’s glowing red eyes. If they ever do a remake, Sam Jackson will get the role of Glaeken and insist that his eyes glow purple instead for no apparent reason that anyone can fathom.
From here the film begins to get on with it at a slightly faster pace. There’s more death, more dream-like moments, more flashy cuts, and a few moments of lens flare that probably gave a young J.J. Abrams a smile that had to be chiseled off of his face brings us to the discovery of mysterious writings in the keep.
This brings the need for an expert on such matters and, since apparently Nazis can only be soldiers and mad scientists, they bring in an old Jewish professor and his daughter. And who did they turn to 35 years ago when they needed to cast a convincing old man character in a film filled with Nazis, dark fantasy elements, and striking visuals? Why, Ian McKellen of course.
So Dr. Theodore Cuza arrives at the keep, and this causes things to go even more wrong. Because Nazis on film apparently can’t make it a full twenty minutes without raping women, the Nazis try to rape Cuza’s daughter Eva. This does not go as pleasantly for them as they had hoped as Molasar shows up and rips them to shreds. He then uses this act, along with curing Cuza of the illness crippling him and making him young again, to convince Dr. Cuza that he is in fact a trapped golem who could be a really great help to the fight against the Nazi evil if only he could leave the place. Eva isn’t quite as trusting of Molasar as her father is, but her father’s need for revenge both clouds his judgment and feeds Molasar.
That’s actually one of the things that survived from the original story but didn’t get very much explaining in the film. Molasar tends to feed off of the base natures of man. He feeds on and is strengthened by Cuza’s hate and need for revenge just as he feeds on the perversions in Kaempffer’s nature. It’s also not really followed up on other than just enough to make it a little more clear to the viewer that, yeah, he’s definitely the bad guy here.
Glaeken arrives in town, meets Eva Cruz, and has a quick chat with her that leads to the two of them rolling around naked in bed together. No, I’m not leaving anything out of their onscreen relationship here. Mann does try to use the moment in bed to foreshadow one of the things Glaeken will do later in the film, so good for him on that. Of course, being Michael Mann in the 1980s, he also loses a few points for doing it with all the subtlety of a giant, flashing neon sign with “FORESHADING MOMENT” spelled out in all caps.
From there on things race to their rather strange, laser lightshow filled battle to the end. People die, people find out just who and what they’re dealing with, some people come to their senses, other people don’t come to their senses, and good faces off against evil to save the world. And when it’s all said and done, you won’t have the first damned clue as to what the hell it was that you just watched.
The Keep is, storyline-wise, a complete and total mess. Things feel jumbled about while the plot seems to just push forward with what feels like a narrative that had great gaping chunks of it lost somewhere along the way. Molasar, the big bad of the film, only has his name mentioned once in the entire film. Dialogue in the film occasionally makes no sense, and more than a few times sounds like it was poorly dubbed into the film after the fact. This may feel this way because The Keep is in fact missing great chunks of story, shots were moved around a bit, and some dialogue was deleted and replaced with clumsily dubbed dialogue in some scenes in the last stages of the post production process.
Michael Mann intended this film to be an epic masterpiece. His original first cut for the film is said to have clocked in at around three-and-a-half hours in length. By the time the studio was done with it, the print that was released was a lean 93 minutes long. Think about that. That means that basically two hours of footage was excised from the film, and scenes were dubbed so that dialogue no longer referenced the plot points or the scenes removed from the final cut. The result is that you end up with moments like Eva seemingly leaping into bed after knowing Glaeken less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee, conversations taking place that feel like they belong somewhere else in the film, and somewhat important questions about Glaeken, Molasar, the keep, and the general storyline of the film that are never ultimately answered by the time the end credits roll. But, amazingly, the film is still watchable. You just won’t really have any clue what the hell it was that you’ve just watched.
The visuals are hypnotic in and of themselves, but the soundtrack by Tangerine Dream combined with the visuals makes it an almost dream-like experience. It’s beautiful. It’s powerful. It’s dark. It’s ugly. It’s beautiful again. And then, when it’s over, you shake your head, blink a bit, and you find yourself feeling like you can’t quite recall everything about what it was you just experienced. You think you should like it, you almost feel like you know you should like it, but you can’t quite put your finger on why you should like it.
You watch it with this odd feeling that there was indeed a masterpiece buried in there, but you can’t quite figure out where it went. By the time you turn it off, you either walk away from it vowing never to return, or you find yourself oddly attracted to it and returning for viewings once every few years in a futile attempt to figure out what it is that you just watched. It almost becomes like that dream that you keep trying to have so that you can finally remember it. But, like that one strange, recurring dream that we all have that we try but fail to remember at last, you just wake up from The Keep with a slightly confused, incomplete memory of it. But despite that description of it, The Keep is one of those films that you have to experience at least once. It is a horror film so amazingly bad while so visually stunning that it really is a so-bad-it’s-good masterpiece in and of itself.
The Keep has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray. It has however shown up on Netflix and Amazon streaming services with some regularity over the last couple of years. It also has a rabid cult following determined to share it, so there are also usually several complete uploads of the film on YouTube at any given time that are occasionally of high visual quality.