[In this new series, Overthinking It writer John Perich dissects the “high-concept train wrecks” of the early 80s. These big vision monstrosities, known for their weird music and kitschy style, left their stamp on the first half of the decade. John takes a look at these cult classics, from birth to termination, and their impact on pop culture]
What Is It
The Keep (1983), Michael Mann’s last big project before “Miami Vice.” A fantasy/horror film.
The Big Idea
Nazis dispatched to guard a crucial Romanian pass occupy an ancient keep in the Carpathians. They unwittingly release an ancient demon trapped within, who picks them off one at a time. Adapted from the well regarded F. Paul Wilson novel of the same name.
Why It Showed Promise
The moral ambiguity. In most horror movies, the otherworldly terror picks off sympathetic victims – topless blondes, trustworthy soldiers – and the occasional asshole. In The Keep, a demon mutilates Nazis. So that makes the demon good, right? Right? This moral ambiguity’s heightened when the demon recruits a Jewish doctor – snatched from the gates of a concentration camp to help decipher the keep’s runic writing – to help free it, promising to wipe the Nazis from Europe. So the demon’s going to end the Holocaust! That makes it a good demon, right? … right?
The cast. Imagine what you’d have to pay today to get a cast that included Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne, Jürgen Prochnow, Alberta Watson and Scott Glenn. Prochnow was fresh off his star-making turn in Das Boot and Glenn had just made The Right Stuff, but they’re the only real “stars” in the picture. Everyone else was, at the time, unknown to an American audience.
The cinematography. This predates Mann’s partnership with videographer Dante Spinotti (Heat, The Insider, Public Enemies), but it’s still daring in its ingenuity. There’s an early scene when a Nazi soldier digs into the keep walls, which suddenly collapse outward into an underground cavern. The camera starts tight on the Nazi’s face then pans back slowly to reveal him at the top of a hundred foot wall … then back farther, as it becomes clear the wall’s nearer a hundred yards high … then farther still, across the floor of a dank chasm, lined with pitted megaliths … until something awakes. One continuous tracking shot.
Also, the audience never gets a sense of the titular keep’s real size. There’s no swooping helicopter shot that establishes it and the village surrounding it, no crane shot dropping us into one of its windows. Every shot of the keep comes from ground level. It remains squat, alien and imposing – always larger than its viewer.
Where It Goes Off The Rails
When the demon awakens, he sucks one guy into the abyss and spits him back half-eaten, then drags another guy with him. There’s a massive conflagration – steam, smoke, sparks, glaring lights, synthesized keyboards, the works. And it all climaxes in this massive burst of light and noise …
… that cuts to Scott Glenn waking up. Wha? Huh? Is Glenn the demon? If not, why are his eyes glowing? And he’s … no, he’s in a bed. A regular old bedroom. Clearly not in the same keep as the Nazis. Okay, now he’s packing his bags, leaving his apartment, and going to the dock to flag a ride to Romania. All right. So … what’s his deal?
As the above item suggests, but really a bullet of its own: the transitions in this film suck. We go from one scene to the next without any sort of establishing shots. Someone mentions a concentration camp, then suddenly we’re looking at people behind a chain-link fence. Okay, that’s clearly a concentration camp, but would a helicopter shot of refugees herded off of train cars have blown out the budget?
It’s ironic that these Nazis are being killed by a demon, you see, because the Nazis are the real demons. This must be what the movie’s about, because that point is made at least eight times. Usually at a scream, usually by the otherwise reliable Prochnow.
… And Then, Tragedy
Glenn plays an immortal something, who wakes up at the same time the demon does, and travels from somewhere to this remote mountain pass (which the Nazis are supposed to be guarding – bang-up job, fellas). He meets the daughter of the Jewish doctor whom the Nazis are using, since they’re staying at the same inn.
Four minutes later they’re doing it.
Not four minutes movie time; there’s a poorly dubbed scene of them sitting on a grassy hilltop, staring deeply into each other’s eyes and mumbling something. Not even James Bond works that fast. But start your watch the first time Scott Glenn and Alberta Watson appear on screen together, and stop it when they’re naked, and tell me I’m wrong.
This is a real shame, because Watson’s character serves no other purpose in this film except to get raped by Nazis and to get not-raped by Glenn. Not only that, but the stilted love scene retards the pacing in an already lethargic film. Michael Mann apparently had plenty of time to show these two writhing on a bedroom floor unconvincingly, but couldn’t spare thirty seconds to mention (1) Glenn’s character’s name or (2) the demon’s name until the very end of the film.
And that’s really what does this movie in, aside from the overacting: the poor pacing. The Keep is a miracle of bad pacing: it’s amazing that a 96-minute movie could feel so sluggish. Shots of backlit Nazis running in slow motion, or Ian McKellen scrambling up a cliff with a
flashlight that has metal wings taped to it Powerful Demonic Talisman took precedence over characters saying things or resolving conflicts.
Contributions to Pop Culture
Tangerine Dream. While the
BritishGerman electronica band had notable commercial success, both in Europe and the U.S., they got a big boost in popularity from doing soundtracks in the 80s. This, plus Mann’s 1981 film Thief, gave the band the stepping stone they needed to do more successful films, such as Risky Business.
A board game from Mayfair Games. In this neat little adventure, one player is the demon and the other players are opposing him. The “good guys” search the Keep for the talisman that will defeat the demon. The demon has twelve servants who can block the good guys’ efforts, but the demon has to “eat” one each turn.
Ian McKellen. His first big budget film, this gave McKellen exposure to the Hollywood machine. He didn’t really come into stardom for another 18 years, so bully for his endurance, I suppose.
Where Can I See It?
Not on DVD – this little gem’s only available on VHS. You can watch the entire thing on YouTube, but be warned: the video quality’s as terrible as you’d expect a Flash upload of a 25-year-old VHS movie to be. Given the strobe lights and generous use of dry ice, there will be several scenes where you’ll have no idea what the merry hell is going on.