Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Strange Kind of Miasma: The Keep (1983)

(I haven't done anything with this blog for ages, so I thought I'd try to get back into it with a quick look at the dizzying highs and lows of Michael Mann's notorious "lost" WW2 horror movie.)

Since all of Michael Mann's films have a strong quality of the subjective and impressionistic about them, it is interesting to speculate how effective his often dreamlike style would be in the context of more non-realist, or fantasy based, genres of film. Similarly, as a director almost unparalleled in the cultivation of atmosphere, and particularly in atmospherics of unease, tension, and looming violence, the horror movie seems like a particularly apt genre to capitalize on Mann's flair for for piling on dense, suffocating cinematic mood.

Of course, we already have a Mann fantasy/horror movie, but it comes in the rarely seen, frustrating, and tantalizingly incomplete form of 1983's The Keep. From the perspective of right now, Michael Mann working in the kind of supernatural/magic realist territory we tend to associate with Gulimare del Toro seems like a prodigious anomaly - a freakish blip in the career of a director who has otherwise proven exceptionally focused on pursuing specific modes, milieus, and ideas in his cinema. But back in the early 80's, with only one theatrical feature under his belt, Mann was a sufficiently unknown quantity that his career could have went off in any direction. The direction it did take at that point was leaden with promise - a young director who had really hit the ground running with an assured d├ębut, highly respected source material in the shape of F. Paul Wilson's novel, and a dream cast - and yet the result was a financial and critical disaster that almost totally scuppered Mann's career. The studio weren't happy from the get-go, and chopped the movie down, if legend is to be believed, to roughly half the length of Mann's original cut. Critics couldn't resist unleashing the punning potential in the title (Keep away from The Keep! and You can keep The Keep!) and author Wilson decried a work that was "visually intriguing, but otherwise utterly incomprehensible." Mann moved on to one of the most lucrative and zeitgeist-defining phases of his career in television, and The Keep itself seemed to disappear back into the strange, misty miasma from which it had emerged.

But not quite. As anybody who has spent an inordinate amount of time watching horror movies of variable quality will tell you, ancient evils are never wholly vanquished. There is always some tremor of vitality, some faint possibility of a resurrection, left in the monster when the credits roll. Though it has yet to be graced with a proper DVD release, The Keep has acquired a small but significant cult following, it's legacy transmitted through faded, relic-like VHS copies from back in the day, a preferred liserdisc edition that preserves the film's often stunning widescreen compositions, and innumerable bootleg and pirated versions.

Keep cultists fall into different categories. The movie has a strongly nostalgic aura for a lot of viewers who first imbibed the Keep as youngsters in the eighties. Horror movies were a big mainstay for children of the remarkably less media-savvy VHS era; the horror icons who adorned the video covers, including Freddy, Jason, Pinhead, and god knows how many others, were to a large extent a far more recognisable brand and talking point than actual flesh and blood actors. In some respects, as a creature both stereotypical and atypical of its time, The Keep taps this nostalgic vein brilliantly. It reminds you of a time when the audience's limited awareness of the movie/critical industry, coupled with the vagaries of video distribution, made renting movies from the video store a very unpredictable experience, a little like the grindhouse theatres eulogised by Tarantino and Rodriquez. The horror section indiscriminately mixed up anything from the big Wes Craven Hollywood franchises, to surreal, mind-bending European fare like Argento's Phenomena and Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre, to, incomprehensible and operatic supernatural horror set during the Second World War, and scored to retro-futuristic perfection by Tangerine Dream. The Keep often feels like a hypnagogic fever dream of VHS era signifiers, awash as it is with inchoate memories of offbeat horror movies, the stylistic excesses of music videos, and more lasers than a Jedi street riot.

Newcomers to the movie fall into three categories. Some dismiss it outright as an embarrassing train-wreak, while others regard it as an undervalued masterwork whose major flaws are most likely a product of aggressive studio mauling. Finally, the third group maintain a little of both perspectives, and enjoy The Keep as a mammoth cult oddity, a cultural artefact of almost otherworldly strangeness. Viewed by any standard cinematic criteria, The Keep is an endlessly intriguing mess, a film that veers unevenly between peak moments of visual and atmospheric brilliance, and troughs of overwrought, campy folly. It has ambition to burn: on a thematic level, it seeks to turn the standard horror dynamics to serve an exploration of weighty issues and more distinctly metaphysical terrors. The horror locked in the Keep (spoiler alert, for what its worth) is the horror that resides submerged in all men's souls, the latent will to power and capacity for evil than can usurp even the most seemingly noble aspirations.

On an aesthetic level, the film is bolder still. Interviewed at the time, Mann described his intentions for The Keep: "I'd just done a street movie, Thief. A very stylized movie, but nevertheless stylised realism. You can make it wet, you can make it dry, but you're still on a street. And I had a big need, a big desire, to do something almost similar to Gabriel Gabriel Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, where I could deal with something that was non-realistic and create the reality." Creating an internal dream logic and a heightened, deeply stylised dream reality was thus Mann's primary rationale for the Keep, and the result is a film as studiously artificial and aestheticized as the silent Expressionist horrors of Murnau and Karl Theodor Dreyer.

Much of the cult fascination that surrounds The Keep derives from the fact that it does genuinely achieve a unique look and tone. Constructed in a giant stele quarry in Wales, with interiors shot at Shepperton Studios, the film's visuals make bold use of striking, minimalist set designs, a desaturated palette of greys (for the Keep itself) and whites (for the village), all lit by vintage 'Twenties arc lamps that created, in Mann's words, "a kind of Albert Speer-Mussolini monumental quality." Mann threw out all conventional wisdom with regard to period pieces, and scored The Keep with Tangerine Dream at their most mesmeric and ambient, creating at the films heart a weird fusion of German Expressionism and 80's futurism. (The combination of period and modernist ambient music also adds to the compellingly odd vibe of Herzog's Aguirre.)

The results of all this are mixed, but quite often hit the mark stylistically. There is more evidence of Mann's budding genius as a visual stylist to be found in The Keep than in the overall vastly superior Thief. The opening is magnificent: a jaw-droppingly long plunge down mist shrouded mountains and trees drops the audience into the middle of a military convey. Mann intercuts the arrival of the German Wehrmacht troops in the village with remarkably sharp, detailed close-ups of Jurgen Prochnow's eye-line, and abstract, eerie compositions of rock faces and skylines. There are many such eye-opening directorial flourishes throughout the movie. When a greedy German soldier burrows into the interior wall of the Keep looking for silver, the camera frames him hunched over a precipice, and then pans slowly back, and back, until he is a tiny speck in the darkness, and the still moving camera gradually traces out a Lovecraftian abyss of staggering proportion. The shot is completely unexpected, and a brilliant flourish of audacity and imagination. Even the Keep's sex scene, cheesy though it may be, strikes me as having a weird beauty: with its icy electronic soundtrack and detached, precise compositions, Mann plays the scene less as a passionate romantic encounter, and more as weird, austere religious ritual.

Yet, as often as it works, The Keep falters and its excesses overwhelm. There are occasional lapses into amateurism, where dialogue is comically stilted and artificial. (The scene between the silver-grabbing soldiers before they are dispatched is a good example of this.) This kind of effect is well known to devotees of poorly dubbed Italian horror movies, but it seems somehow less forgiveable in an English language picture. The cast, overall, are quite variable. Jurgen Prochnow impresses me the most; his sympathetic, regretful Nazi remains believable throughout. Sir Ian McKellen, on the other hand, gives an uncharacteristically shrill and grating performance. Scott Glean is fine in a kind of extraterrestrial David Carradine way; Alberta Watson is likewise perfectly watchable, albeit not with a whole lot to do outside of deducting her truly extraordinary eyes from the special effects budget. Gabriel Byrne is memorable chiefly for his haircut.

This brings us to a big question: how much of the Keep's major flaws are a result of drastic studio cutting? Would an extended director's cut result in a markedly superior film? We can't tell, or course, but I suspect the answer to these questions could very well be in the affirmative. The Keep never adequately fleshes out either the village or the military occupation of the citadel as settings for the action. Similarly, the progression of the action itself feels truncated, unwieldy, and without a proper flow. The basic fact that Molasar is a kind of vampiric entity who is gradually acquiring wholeness through killing the soldiers is presented elliptically at best; I think I had to see the movie a couple of times before I even got that. (At least one Molasar attack seems to have been cut completely.) Most tellingly, Glaeken Trismegestus, who has top billing in the credits, and whom Mann described as the main focus of the film, is almost entirely chopped from the studio cut. His role is essentially reduced to that of otherworldly stud and deus ex machina.

With all this material missing, it's difficult to see how the film could have came together successfully, whatever its virtues or vices. A more fleshed out version of The Keep, with its melodramatic excesses placed in greater context, and spaced out by more of the slow-burn atmospherics that distinguish the studio cut, could be a different proposition entirely. Or not. As it stands, The Keep may be a frustratingly speculative experience, but it is an ideal cult film: a slightly hermetic, forgotten guilty pleasure with an utterly unique aesthetic, a sincerely ambitious film that falls somewhere between brilliance and high camp. With the current fascination for eighties electronica and surreal nostalgia prevalent among the hynagogic and hauntological music subcultures, The Keep's cult gravitas seems more likely to grow than diminish. I would love to see an extended cut, but is seems unlikely to materialize any time soon. Hell, even a decent DVD or Bluray transfer would be nice, but Mann himself has more or less washed his hands of the film, and Paramount seems to have no interest in releasing it in any format.


  1. Well said! I regard Mann's THE KEEP much like I do David Lynch's DUNE, a fascinating flawed mess of a film. I certainly agree that some of the problems that film suffers from came from studio interference but I also get the feeling that Mann bit off a little more than he could chew. He really shouldn't have called it THE KEEP as fans of the book were bitterly disappointed that the film barely resembled its source material. Mann has said that he was interested in making a contemporary fairy tale of sorts (kinda like Ridley Scott tried to do with LEGEND) and as a result you get a film that is confused, not knowing which direction it wants to go in.

    Interestingly, I remember around the time COLLATERAL came out, Paramount briefly listed THE KEEP as coming out on DVD and then it mysteriously disappeared off their radar. I think that maybe Mann, like Lynch, is still bitter from the experience and just wants to forget it ever happened. He rarely talks about it in interviews. Of course, it is rarely brought up.

    Excellent review!

  2. Hey J.D., thanks! Yeah, when I saw both Dune and The Keep mentioned on the cover of the Fantastic Films mag pictured above, I was kinda struck how both films were destined for a somewhat similar fate....

    Personally, I know very little about the source novel, but what you say sounds about right: Mann seems to have regarded it purely as a springboard for his own ideas, which I guess was a bit of a burn for Keep fans.

    I figure it has come out on DVD sooner or later. I wonder has Anchor Bay ever looked into it?

  3. Well, I would imagine they'd have to wrest the rights from Paramount. I wonder how much trouble that would be as I'm sure Paramount doesn't think it would be much of a moneymaker considering its rep. Now, my dream would be if Criterion Collection could get it and have Mann perhaps also assemble a Director's Cut and maybe include the theatrical version in a box set a la Gilliam's BRAZIL.

  4. This really is an excellent piece on a Mann film that gets frequently (and perhaps rightfully) overlooked, but one I enjoy immensely for the exquisite Tangerine Dream score and Mann's always impeccable visual touch. The squandered potential here makes it a rather frustrating experience as well, though.

  5. Drew - thanks! I love the score as well, its probably my favourite Tangerine Dream soundtrack.