Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Keep

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

THE KEEP

6/10

USA 1983 : Michael Mann : 92-6mins

The music begins. Three technological monoliths emitting urps and hissings and pings and swooshings in the dark, little rows of lights flickering futuristically as the three men at the keyboards, who never say a word, send out sonar blips through the congealing air. Yeah, lets swim all the way out, through the Jell-O into the limestone. I close my eyes and settle back into the ooze of my seat, feeling the power of the cough syrup building inside me as the marijuana fumes sift through the cracks in the air, trying to conjure up some inner-eyelid secret movie.

Lester Bangs, I saw God and/or Tangerine Dream Village Voice, 18 April 1977

Thanks to Michael Mann, cinemagoers of the early 80s didn’t have to close their eyes to emulate Bangs experiences, as Tangerine Dream provided soundtracks for both his first two features. But while pounding, swirling synths were an obvious match for Thiefs brand of stylish urban noir, they were a bold choice for The Keep, a baroque slice of wartime supernatural gothic set in 1941 Romania. The score is 1983 through and through, but it hasnt dated in fact, its the one aspect of the movie that really stands up two decades later. Otherwise, this is Manns one and only misfire so far.

Misfire or no, its still recognisably his work, and as such as always worth watching. But if it wasn’t for the Tangerine Dream input, the film would probably work a lot better as a silent movie the most charitable way of describing Manns dialogue would be to say it doesn’t add to ones understanding or enjoyment of the movie. A choice example: mysterious stranger Scott Glenn arrives at an inn high in the Carpathian alps. He enjoys a passionate (if dramatically superfluous) liaison with a fellow guest. Afterwards

She : Where do you come from?
He : Im a traveller.
She : From where?
He : Everywhere. Go to sleep and dream.

Glenn turns out to be a mysterious being, possibly of alien origin. His lifelong quest: to prevent a demonic force breaking free of the vast mountainside keep which has been its prison for hundreds of years. Guarded by generations of fearful villagers, the keeps security is endangered by two packs of marauding Nazis Jurgen Prochnows good soldiers of the Wehrmacht, then Gabriel Byrnes bad stormtroopers of the SS. A Jewish historian (Ian McKellen) is brought from a concentration camp to decipher the secrets of the keep his daughter (Alberta Watson) comes with him – its she who has the encounter with Glenn at the inn. Meanwhile, the demonic force is gaining power and form, planning to use McKellens hatred of the Nazis to gain his escape

Based F Paul Wilsons, The Keep is an unusual, original horror picture, and the first half hour suggests it might even be some kind of masterpiece the opening sequence follows the Wehrmachts trucks through the dense, foggy mountain landscape, pounding synth music rising in an awesome crescendo. Mann delivers a virtuoso moment soon after, as a pair of over-eager soldiers, convinced there’s silver hidden within the keeps walls, pull out a stone block, and one of them peers down into a vast interior. The camera then pulls back, revealing an enormous black expanse inside the mountain, all the way back to some kind of metallic altar: then a white fireball zooms out from the altar, retracing the cameras progress through the void, right back to the soldier

Sadly, its mostly downhill from here. Mann doesn’t know how to handle the development of the movie now that the evil force is on the loose dodgy special effects don’t help. Like McKellens old-man make-up, the monster, in all its various stages, is notably unconvincing nowhere near as impressive as anything in John Carpenters roughly contemporary The Thing. The poundingly atmospheric use of synth music, the red-eyed demon, and various glowing metal crosses all nod back to The Fog, but while Mann seems to have learned a lot about horror style from Carpenter, he’s taken less notice of horror plotting. Theres no way, for instance, that Carpenter would have allowed this material to descend to the kind of bombastic portentousness which takes over at the end of The Keep, as Glenn and the creature square off in a laser-heavy final combat.

Spielberg dealt with the whole Nazis-meddling-in-mystical-shit-get-their-desserts more efficiently in the last ten minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark than this movie manages in its full hour and a half. But then again, isn’t that a suspiciously short running time? The post-production of the film was apparently very messy, and it was rapidly buried after flopping on US release. It would make sense if there were another half-hour of footage lying around somehere it would explain the jerky pacing of the middle sections, and perhaps tie up the mysteries left dangling at the end. As it is, The Keep remains the least successful, least known of all Manns features but the soundtrack continues to sell.

3rd February, 2001

by Neil Young
Back to Film Index