Death Around You: Retrospective On Michael Mann’s ‘The Keep’

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It’s always interesting looking through an acclaimed director’s filmography. Like others such as Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and more, Michael Mann of HeatMiami Vice, and Collateral, has some beginnings in the horror genre. The sophomore directorial film of Mann after the success of the crime movie Thief was the adaptation of the World War II set historical horror/fantasy book by F. Paul Wilson, The Keep. Sadly, Mann’s original vision for the film was disrupted due to problems on and off-set, creating numerous time and monetary set-backs.

Image via IMDB

Paramount Studios stepped in and stopped Mann from using his original three hour cut of the film. The movie ending up edited down to around an hour and a half after going through focus groups and test screenings. The final product ending up a box-office bomb and critical disaster disavowed by everyone involved, from Mann himself, to original book author, F. Paul Wilson. Over the years however, The Keep has become something of a cult film thanks in no small part to Mann’s moody directing style, the cast including Scott Glenn and Sir Ian McKellen, the stunning creature effects, and the haunting score of Tangerine Dream. Creating a bizarre and dream-like movie that persists to this day.

Image via Youtube

The story follows a group of German soldiers sent to set up a base in a small Transylvanian village, led by the pragmatic Captain Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow). Establishing themselves in an ancient citadel adorned with nickel crosses, a couple of greedy soldiers accidentally unleash an evil entity after trying to loot the keep of its crosses. An event that shocks the mysterious Glaeken (Scott Glenn) from across several countries and sends him on a journey to the keep. As the bodies of soldier pile up, a cruel SS platoon led by the sadistic Major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) takes control and torments the villagers, believing the deaths to be the work of partisans. Eventually sending for a former villager and Jewish historian, Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter, Eva (Alberta Watson) from the concentration camp they were imprisoned in. Cuza making contact with the being that called Molasar, who strengthens his diseased body and promises to rid the world of the Nazis if Cuza frees him. The plotlines leading to a conflict between all players as they converge upon the keep.

Image via IMDB

It’s a strange story, but one that endures thanks to its themes, paralleling the evils of fascism to that of a supernatural being like Molasar. Rather than weighing one more than the other, both are equated as being similar forces of darkness upon the world. Cuza more than willing to help the demon escape his prison if it means ending Hitler and the Nazis who have targeted his family and his people. Molasar himself is a memorable devil as well. First appearing as energy that sucks humans of their lifeforce, slowly regaining strength and appearing in a ghostly fog, then as a fleshless husk, and finally as a giant, golem-like being with red light burning in his eyes. Despite his strength, acting as a manipulator in order to make his escape from his ancient prison. Ian McKellen standing out as Cuza, and even having a Gandalf-esque confrontation with Molasar toward the end.

The dream-like atmosphere of the film has been an underlying cause for The Keep‘s popularity. The opening scene being an oddly slow shot of the German’s descending upon Dinu Pass while set to a militaristic track from Tangerine Dream. The score by the synth band being one of their best. The theme that plays as the German’s accidentally unleash Molasar being absolutely haunting, and contrasting the gothic style of the plot with the electronic music.

Unfortunately, The Keep has yet to have a proper DVD/Blu-Ray release, only making it as far as VHS/Laserdisc, with the studios/creator’s disdain for the project making it likely that we’ll never see an updated version. Fortunately, it is available for digital rental via Amazon, Youtube, and iTunes. Despite its flaws, it is a bizarre and dream-like film well worth experiencing.

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