Romania, the Carpathian Alps, 1942. In this European backwater, a squad of German troops, led by Captain Woermann, occupy an isolated hamlet, with orders to guard the mountain pass. They enshrine themselves in the vast, lowering, Gothic Keep which overshadows the whole valley. Some of the troops make no attempt to disguise their boredom, and despite the warnings from the odd, reticent 'caretaker', it isn't long before two of the restless soldiers prise open part of the keep's heavily fortified interior, seeking their fortune. What they find is something else entirely other
One-by-one a malevolent force murders the men, and the beleaguered Woermann asks for re-location – but instead gets a squad of bloodthirsty SS troops, hell-bent on ferreting out the supposed 'partisan' threat. The local priest forces them to pursue a more investigative, by saying that a scholar, Dr. Cuza, might be able to shed some light on the keep's origins
Cuza, who is summoned with his beautiful daughter in tow, is Jewish. Meanwhile, a mysterious mariner, awakened from afar by a change in the earth, crosses land and sea to get to the keep.
And thus the stage is set for WW2 and man's various grievances and foibles to be played out in mythic miniature. The Keep was Michael Mann's second theatrical feature after Thief, his third if you count (the terrific) Jericho Mile. It pretty much flopped on its original release, and interest in the film is pretty small. There's been the odd screening on TV, a small VHS release in the UK in the early 2000s (when I first saw it), a big fan website being started up, run by a Mr. Stephane Pieter, the odd rep screening, and also a comic book drawn by Matthew Smith. However, the film's hard-to-find nature and its overwhelming oddness in the Mann canon has worked against it. Paramount pictures don't seem to have a great deal of enthusiasm for their film, so it isn't out on DVD yet. Furthermore, the writer of the novel, F. Paul Wilson, has never made any attempt to hide his disgust for the film.
The films is obviously the product of a stressful production in which there were to many influences jostling for dominance. This isn't to say that it isn't eerie, frightening, compelling or thought-provoking, because it's all those things. However, it's never any of those things for long enough. It's often a bit pretentious, boring and never as blood-curdling as Wilson's original book, which was a straightforward, no-frills shocker. What's odd about Mann's film is that while it strains for a sophistication above it's generic roots, it misses out on the un-forced passages of contemplation in the book, where Wilson ruminated on his different character's inner desires. This no-nonsense approach on Wilson's part had a crucial grounding effect. Without it, the film often comes across as a curious fairy-tale (in a bad way), and at other times plain daft. It's hinted at that the soldiers might be there to harness the monster for military use (why else would they be there?), there are nods Vampire mythology (Scott Glenn's magical weapon resembles a vampire hunter's kit and the monster literally feeds on the men) and Romania's relationship with German at the time, but otherwise the film is divorced from any kid of reality or genre. This means that Mann's big idea, to explain the emotional attraction of fascism and then confront the Nazis with the ultimate embodiment of fascism, which proves too much even for them, has no gravity at all: it's just rootless drama with no consistent stylistic grounding. The film's set design and cinematography do help him somewhat, though, overshadowing all the characters like much of Nazi architecture and enforcing the idea that human and supernatural evil share a common ambition to control everything.
Ultimately, the film fails to confront the same challenge all films in the war-horror sub-genre: how can you convince the audience that the other-worldly horror is greater than the evil of man. To his credit, Mann addresses in it in an original way, and tries to say the two are differently similar: the age old evil of 'Molasar' (never named in the film, but listed in the credits and faithful to the book), designed to look like some demonic Teutonic Knight, was born of hatred and a lust for power, much like the Nazis. When Major Kaempffer is finally confronted by the monster, he asks where he's come from, vainly trying to ward him off with a cross. Molasar replies with a weary condescension: "where am I from. I am
From you." This exchange, one of the film's more frightening and atmospheric moments, takes place in The Keeps main entrance, knee deep in the blasted corpses of troops Molasar has just massacred, bringing to mind charred, piled corpses of Holocaust victims.
The Keep is considerably more thoughtful and ambitious than the likes of Outpost, The Bunker and Deathwatch (films it obviously inspired), but in the end it's broken-backed film, because Mann fails to marry of the war and horror genres with the same success he had in matching crime and horror in Manhunter. At times, the film is simply too frustrating, or tedious, to be compelling. The Korean R-Point was a much more creepy war-horror movie, making the grim observation that the horror unleashed on its small island setting is cyclical, like the cycle of war, an idea Mann never touches upon.
However, The keep remains more than just an interesting 'curio' as it's often termed, thanks largely to the scale of the production and some truly draw-dropping visual effects: the Nazi troops passage through the mountain pass in the opening credits, with Tangerine Dream's distinctive score rattling in the background, is a triumph, and the troop's violation of the vast crypt, the 'camera' pulling away for an age, is magnificent. It's up to you if you want to invest the time, energy and money is discovering this little-known, little-loved but memorable film.
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