The name Michael Mann is synonymous with gritty urban sprawl, fast-paced action, and films about the criminal underbelly; so of course that’s who you want for your supernatural horror flick set in WWII Romania. Right? That makes sense. In the early 80s, though, the director hadn’t quite cemented himself in any particular genre, so going completely in another direction seemed not so far-fetched. So, he followed his debut film, the impressive 1981 crime film Thief, with his most atypical film, trading in his car chases and jewel heists for Nazis and demons for 1983’s The Keep. It’s an odd little movie that tried to be (and probably should have been) a lot bigger. As pretty as the cinematography and design is, it suffers from that most allusive of film maladies, not making a lick of sense.
Based on a novel of the same name by F. Paul Wilson, The Keep has lofty aspirations and a pretty low yield. It’s such a weird movie to watch. The accents are strange, the music is strange, and the pacing is strange; perhaps the only thing decent about it is the look of it. So put it on mute, I guess. When watching it, I felt like I must have fallen asleep a couple of times because I couldn’t have seen the entire thing and be this lost. Was the whole thing a dream? A quick pinch to my arm let me know that I was A) still awake, and 2) still sunburned. Ow. In doing research, the book sounds like it is very good, making The Keep one of the few films to ever make me wish I was reading.
During the Second World War, a small battalion of German soldiers make their way to a small village in Romania with an incredibly large citadel built into a mountain. Their task is to hold the pass and they will occupy the citadel (the titular Keep) as their stronghold. Leading this group is Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), a tough officer who is nevertheless compassionate toward the villagers he’s displacing. While inside the massive keep, he is told by a weird old mystic that they are not to touch any of the crosses that are imbedded into the wall. Of course, the first thing some lowly, greedy soldiers do is try to remove a silver cross from the wall. They find that it is attached to a block that leads to a passageway with another cross. When they remove that one, they see a massive, hollow area in the mountain with weird stones and things. An entity comes at them and makes their heads explode. The 80s were a big decade for Nazi heads.
Elsewhere in the world, Scott Glenn exists. When the entity in the keep is disturbed, he wakes up with visual effects light in his eyes. He leaves wherever he is and starts to travel, presumably toward where the story is. Back in Romania, Woermann has called to request his battalion be moved following the mysterious deaths of a handful of other soldiers. This request is turned down in favor of sending Eric Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), an SS officer, and his mobile death squads who begin rounding up villagers and killing them, thinking they are to blame. Woermann is aghast at this; he’s a good Nazi. Because of some strange writing on the walls, Kaempffer is convinced by a local priest to retrieve Jewish scholar Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen… I know) and his daughter from a death camp. More Nazis get killed as the entity begins to manifest itself physically and makes Cuza believe he is a force for good. Then Scott Glenn shows up, boffs Cuza’s daughter, and then reveals himself to be the warrior destined to fight this strange, unearthly demon thing.
Okay, for reals, though; this movie don’t make no sense. It’s rushed, overly complex, and nothing pays off in a satisfactory way. Some of this, though, isn’t Michael Mann’s fault. Apparently, Mann’s first cut of the movie clocked in at about 3hrs and 30mins. As the theatrical release version is only 1hr 36mins, it’s safe to say a good amount of Mann’s vision was left on the floor. Scott Glenn’s character is a complete cipher who is totally absent for over half of the film’s running time. He shows up in the town in a hotel room where Cuza’s daughter is staying. He doesn’t leave and she’s weirdly okay with it. In about five minutes, they’re having sex. What? I mean, I get he’s a soldier for the Forces That Be, but I don’t even think James Bond could work that fast, especially without saying really anything. As it sits, McKellen’s character is the protagonist, really, though even he doesn’t come in until quite a ways in.
Some of the things ARE Mann’s fault, though; perhaps the most irritating being the soundtrack done by German New Age synth band, Tangerine Dream. It’s not written in the Law of Movies that a film’s score can’t be anachronistic, but having plodding keyboard tones behind shots of Gestapo running from a billowing smoke beast is about the weirdest marriage of audio and visual since my sixth grade teacher accidentally put on a David Bowie tape along with a film strip about Sir Walter Raleigh. It’s weird, but Tangerine Dream did the music for Mann’s earlier film, Thief, so it makes a bit of sense. The other thing that’s Mann’s fault is more baffling.
This movie’s characters are either German or Romanian. The Germans all speak with German accents; fine. The Romanians all speak with flat, California-American accents…whyyyyy? Is it just so Scott Glenn doesn’t have to try to do an accent? But he’s otherworldly; he could have spoken with his regular voice and it’d have been fine. So you have Irish Gabriel Byrne doing a German accent and English Ian McKellen doing an American accent. Prochnow is the only person whose natural accent actually matches the character they’re playing. It’s very off-putting. It’s like the Nazis invaded Bakersfield.
Literally the only thing this movie has going for it are the impressive visuals. Not all the special effects work, but at least the cinematography is pretty stunning. Sadly, they weren’t enough to save the movie. It tanked on its theatrical release, making only about half its relatively-small budget back. The book’s author publically slammed the picture and Mann himself has all but disowned it and has blocked it from ever getting a DVD release. I’m sure he still wakes up some nights in a cold sweat with dreams about the Nazis and demons movie he made that got the better of him.