Saturday, November 1, 2008

#48: The Keep (Michael Mann, 1983)

Some friends of mine and critics I read tend to either rapturously love Michael Mann's films or intensely despise them. I don't have such strong feelings. I thoroughly enjoyed Manhunter and Thief, thought Heat was silly (except for Tom Noonan's small part), enjoyed The Insider but quickly forgot about it, and avoided seeing the ones I'm guessing won't set me on fire (The Last of the Mohicans, Ali, Miami Vice). So, I don't have any beef with Michael Mann, but I also don't go into multiple orgasms every time he releases a movie. However, I find the vigorous reactions to his work interesting.
The Keep is Mann's forgotten movie. He wanted a three- to four-hour cut, but the producers had the final say and trimmed it to a sometimes incoherent 96 minutes. The film is only available on VHS, with no current plans for a DVD. It was a huge flop at the box office and not critically well received. At times, it's way too stylistically flashy for its own good. However, looked at as a pure genre movie, The Keep is not without its charms.

Set in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania during World War II, the story begins with a group of Nazi soldiers occupying a small village on orders to guard a mountain pass. A large castle keep occupies the bulk of the village, but this keep has been oddly constructed. It doesn't keep intruders out; it keeps something in. Bwa ha ha ha! The villagers ominously warn the Nazis to stay away, but they don't listen. Two soldiers bust open the keep to steal some silver crosses, and the evil inside gets released. There is an amazing shot (the best one in the movie) at this moment. A young Nazi soldier, after breaking through the wall, pokes his head inside to look around. The camera pulls back, and back, and back, revealing an enormous, empty, cavernous blackness with the man's head at the top center of the screen the only visible lighted source.
Soon, Nazis are mysteriously dying every night. The captain calls for backup, and a sadistic major and his forces arrive to relieve him of his command. When the deaths continue and mysterious writing appears on the wall, an ailing Jewish professor and his caretaker daughter are removed from a concentration camp and sent to the village. The professor is an expert on the region, and the only expert on the keep. Soon, a demon emerges from the keep to make deals and destroy Nazis. But, is he an even bigger evil than the Third Reich?

The Keep, based on an F. Paul Wilson novel, contains a lot of ridiculous dialogue. The filmmakers take themselves very seriously, but the mood reminds me of an old DC or Marvel comic, and the demon even looks like an old comic book supervillain. The fine cast includes Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne, Jurgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn, and Robert Prosky. The score by Tangerine Dream is very satisfying in a 1980s time capsule way, but Mann overuses it. The plot jumps around too quickly, like huge chunks are missing (and they are). It's a fun movie, though, and campy enough to enjoy a larger cult than it currently possesses.

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