A Michael Mann movie that's not on DVD...
I enjoyed The Keep in the cinema, though it didn't all make total sense at the time. Watching it again after a long break, I understand it better and still enjoy it, especially the dreamlike quality. Admittedly, it's a very dark dream.
In 1983, Michael Mann wasn't a 'name' yet and had only directed TV shows and one other movie. Looking back, The Keep doesn't snugly fit in with his body of work, and perhaps this is why it hasn't been released on home video in nearly twenty years...
But before I'd even seen it, I was already sold on the premise and some of the startling photos. German soldiers tangling with a monstrous evil in an ancient castle keep - it was a story I wanted to see. Hints of the Dracula legend being reimagined, Nazis versus monsters, were all very promising. The coverage in Fantastic Films, Fangoria and Starburst magazines all had cover stories. This looked to be a new kind of monster altogether. The cast looked good, so for me it didn't need a big name director to warrant seeing it.
World War II. A German army commander (Jürgen Prochnow, inbetween Das Boot and Dune) rolls into a remote Romanian village and houses his soldiers in a mysterious old stone fortress. Despite warnings not to tamper with the strange crosses embedded in the walls, his soldiers start to die, blown apart by an unseen force. An SS officer (Gabriel Byrne, inbetween Excalibur and Gothic) arrives to solve the murders, instantly blaming the villagers. He pressures an old Jewish professor (Ian McKellen, in an early leading role) to translate the writing inside the keep and unravel its mysteries. Meanwhile, a lone traveller (Scott Glenn of The Right Stuff, Backdraft) is on his way to the village, somehow alerted the very moment the keep was breached...
But The Keep didn't appear in the usual local cinemas near me but the BFI repertory cinema instead, meaning that it hadn't had a wide release and had been relegated to the arthouse circuit, which suited it very well. The studio were presumably annoyed they hadn't got a straightforward monster movie (though it wasn't much more different approach than Alien, which also had careful art direction and a slowly measured pace). There'd already been news that the film had been extensively recut before release.
Michael Mann directed this after Violent Streets (a gritty heist story, made in 1981, also known as Thief) and wanted to avoid "another street picture" and "another cops and robbers picture" (which he's mostly been stuck with ever since). "It had to be original and unique", "like no other movie with supernatural entities", (Mann quoted in Fantastic Films #38). Instead he was aiming high, at a horror story, a fairy tale, a fable about evil, with stylised visuals, but not gothic like the novel. Watching it again, I think he largely succeeded.
The soundtrack is crucial to the mood, and Tangerine Dream doesn't work for everyone, especially when the synth-heavy score is illustrating a wartime period piece. For me this very 1980s music may be an anachronism, but makes it feel more like it's happening in the now. It adds hugely to a dreamlike experience set against the surreal story and setting.
The visuals are also very 80s, but is that because the look of Mann's work influenced the decade? Carefully colour-coordinated production design, symmetrical camera compositions, backlighting, slow-motion montage, heavy filters and floods of dry ice are consistent with Mann's following few films. His next film was Manhunter, a wait of three years presumably because of The Keep's box-office failure. Meanwhile, he made his name producing the mega-hit TV series Miami Vice.
At the centre of The Keep is a monster. Mann wanted something original but had to compete with the impressive work done on Alien and The Thing. Experimenting with visual mechanical effects, the production was delayed and the budget crept up. Constrained by what was possible at the time, I wonder what he would have imagined with CGI?
The violence is bloodless because he was "not interested in gore", feeling he couldn't outdo John Carpenter, "The Thing was the ultimate prosthetic movie", (Mann quoted in Starburst #58). He did however have visual effects by Wally Veevers (Superman - The Movie) and mechanical effects from Nick Allder (Alien, The Empire Strikes Back), plus some spectacular prosthetic suits made by Nick Maley. Though the 'muscles on the outside' approach had been prefigured by the climax of Altered States. Unfortunately, Cinefex magazine didn't write up the visual effects in detail at the time (probably because it was produced in Britain and not Hollywood), but Fangoria #33 had a well-illustrated look at the suits.
I was disappointed that some of the visual effects hadn't made the final cut, and that the wild-looking photos of various stages of the creature weren't showcased in the film. But it's hard to say why that is. Was that cut out by the director or the studio? There's footage on YouTube of an unseen alternate ending and it's certainly a short film for Mann. Also several minor characters (like William Morgan Shepherd) disappear completely after being dramatically introduced, (more about the deleted scenes here).
The 'less is more' glimpses of the creature work to its advantage. It looks impressively huge, an outsized humanoid like the Golem legend, which is mentioned in passing as the soldiers flee. One unique apparition of the figure enshrouded in a cloud of self-circulating smoke is astounding, mainly because some poor devil had to build it all and make it work!
But the mystery of The Keep is intensified by both the surrounding story and locale. Cinematography that's allowed to breathe, with some very long shots that allow us to relax and enjoy the view. Magnificent sets, particularly the village exterior built in a spectacular slate quarry in North Wales. Mann wanted a steep-sided valley with black walls, and there it is in the Glyn Rhonwy Quarry, Llanberis (before and after photos here), together with a full-sized exterior of the keep and half a Romanian village. I remember visiting a scary open slate quarry in the area on a school trip (we were at the top of the quarry cliff looking over the edge) - we were only camped a few miles away, so there's a very good chance it was this one.
In terms of production, with a British crew and an auteur director striving for atmosphere rather than pace, this bears close comparison to Ridley Scott's Alien (1979). As ambitious maybe, though not as effective. I still find it fascinating and the initial build-up of lurking horror is hard to beat. When the soldiers break inside the inner keep, there's a single mindblowing 'pullback' shot that just keeps on going. It totally worked in the cinema, but the visual 'trick' is more obvious on the laserdisc. With careful grading for a digital presentation, I'm still hoping that this scene will regain it's initial power.
The complete removal of language barriers between all the characters is too convenient, and there's an uneven variety of accents on offer. Ian McKellen is supposedly Eastern European but sounds strangely American (just as strange that his film career was so very slow to take off). Gabriel Byrne (Stigmata, Ghost Ship, Miller's Crossing) plays German without an accent, but Jürgen Prochnow can't help himself. Incidentally it was fun seeing Scott Glenn again in Sucker Punch. Looking good, but with more furrowed wrinkles...
But the performances are excellent, with Alberta Watson (White of the Eye, The Lookout) in a difficult but standout role against all the heavyweights. Also a rare horror-role for Robert Prosky, who I first saw as a regular in Hill Street Blues.
The Keep has a carefully-composed 2.35 widescreen aspect, like all Michael Mann's movies, and was really badly cropped down to 1.33 for the videotape release. Anyone watching the VHS will have trouble following what the hell is going on. After being so impressed by it in the cinema, I was delighted when The Keep had an early widescreen release on laserdisc in the US (one of the main reasons I got into the format was the likelihood of widescreen).
The film is becoming increasingly famous as a 'missing film' on home video, last seen on that Paramount laserdisc in 1993. But there's still no DVD on the horizon. It notably appeared on Netflix recently, in the US.
Here's an original trailer on YouTube, (but cropped to 4:3 for home video...)
Sir Ian 'Gandalf' McKellen wrote a little about his involvement on his own website, including a few photographs...
French special effects artist Stéphane Piter has a huge fansite about his obsession with The Keep. The picture-heavy website, English version, begins here...