Michael Mann. His crime dramas have always been too serious and self absorbed for my taste, and he seems to think that eliciting deadpan, monotone performances out of his actors somehow amplifies the dramatic tension and suspense he so desperately desires. While I remain a huge fan to this day of the original Manhunter, the fact that Mann’s penchant for stylistic brooding and emotionless emoting actually worked in the film’s favor is nothing more than a happy accident. Moreover, if Manhunter is a testament to how his filmmaking style can occasionally get it right, then The Keep is the perfect example of how his directorial visions can go so very, very wrong.
The 1983 film The Keep is an adaptation of the 1981 F. Paul Wilson book of the same name. The book was the first of the Adversary Cycle, and if you know what that means, then you have probably already read the book. You might have never seen the film, however, as it mysteriously dropped off the face of the earth after its brief theatrical run and initial release on VHS. Then again, it probably isn’t that much of a mystery when you consider that it came in #13 when it opened the weekend before Christmas (not exactly the time of year I would have chosen to release a horror film with Nazis) to dismal reviews like “The Keep: You Can Keep It.” It went on to earn less than five million in its brief run, which was a disappointing number even back then.
Ironically, the film starts off quite promisingly. The first half hour has the slow, foreboding pace of a European art-house war film, with plenty of slow motion shots of advancing Nazi trucks and long, expansive wide shots of the monolithic Keep around which the film’s action centers. Measured, deliberate dialogue and camera angles alternating between claustrophobic and agoraphobic slowly build a tense feeling of anticipation, which is successfully amplified by the anachronistic but still surprisingly appropriate Tangerine Dream synth-pop score. As the film sets things in motion, and the Third Reich continuously ignores the ominous warnings of the Romanian villagers to avoid the Keep, it becomes more and more apparent that the stone corridors will soon be littered with Nazi corpses. Then, as two greedy soldiers pry up one of the many nickel crosses embedded in the stone walls, the audience is gleefully rewarded with its first gruesomely dismembered Nazi, as the evil force contained with The Keep is finally unleashed.
Ian McKellen’s Dr. Cuza is rushed in from a nearby concentration camp to decipher some wall etchings. McKellen is usually great, but he seems to be a bit off his game in this one. It does not help matters that as his crippled elderly character grows healthier and younger with the aid of the evil force’s influences, he starts to look more and more like an albino Julian Sands.
It’s not that the performances are bad, so much as that they are simply prevented from being good. Jürgen Prochnow manages to steal the show as the sympathetic Nazi Captain Woermann, mostly due to his ability to skirt Mann’s “No Emotions on Set” rule by playing his low-key intensity to great effect. Other than him, however, everyone is overpowered by the general blandness that overtakes the film’s tension by the halfway mark. Even Gabriel Byrne, who usually hands in an excellent performance, divides his screen time between playing it straight-faced for Mann and doing his best to distract the audience from the worst Nazi haircut you’ve ever seen. There is very little characterization, and even less plot advancement, apart from the occasional mention of more dead Nazis. By the time Dr. Cuza’s protective daughter instantly jumps into bed with glowing-eyed stranger with the unpronounceable name, it is painfully aware that the audience is being forcefully shoved towards a hasty and ill-conceived ending.
As is the case with most cinematic disasters, few are willing to take the blame for this one. Michael Mann, whose name was attached to this colossal dud as writer/director, likes to blame the studios for cutting his three-hour vision of the book into an industry-friendly ninety minutes. F. Paul Wilson, who had access to early drafts of Mann’s screenplay and whose advise and comments on it were soundly ignored, prefers to blame the arrogance of the writer/director that was more concerned with making the film his own than he was with making it good. Having read the book years ago, I tend to side with Wilson. In short… get ready for the pun… The Keep is far from a keeper.