It breaks my heart watching The Keep, it’s like seeing an aborted foetus writhing around on a petri dish. Based on F. Paul Wilson’s novel, it’s a film with such awesome potential, with its great premise and talented actors. This could have been a highly suspenseful horror underpinned with rich metaphor, but instead it falls apart after the first few scenes.
Set in WW2 Romania, a group of battle hardened Wehrmacht soldiers led by Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) are ordered to hold the strategic Dinu Pass in the Carpathian mountains. They enter an eerie settlement and decide to take up positions inside the ancient monolithic Keep that forms the heart of the village. The Keep’s guardian claims that the place is haunted and warns the soldiers not to touch any of the metallic crosses which adorn the stone walls. The troops laugh off such superstitions and go about setting up their base. Inevitably, two of the soldiers tamper with the crosses, releasing an evil spirit from an ancient crypt deep inside the Keep. The Spirit then sets about murdering the soldiers one by one. In the meantime a mysterious Greek man, Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn) senses that something is wrong and begins his journey towards the Keep.
Dismayed at the loss of his men, Woermann contacts his Headquarters and an elite unit of Einsatzkommandos, led by the fanatical Major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), is dispatched to deal with the problem. Believing the culprits to be Romanian partisans, Kaempffer’s SS troopers begin executing the locals, drawing disapproval from the mild-mannered Woermann. In desperation, the local priest (Robert Prosky) suggests that they invest the help of crippled historian Dr Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson), two Romanian Jews who are brought from an internment camp to the Keep in order to decipher the ancient markings found on its walls. The spirit saves Eva from being raped by Kaempffer’s troops and convinces Cuza that it is a force for good, capable of ridding the world of the scourge of Nazism. The spirit restores Cuzas health and requests that he take a talisman out of the Keep which will release the Spirit and allow it to continue the fight against the Nazis. With each victim the Spirit gains strength and its evil begins to spread to the surrounding village. Tensions mount between Woermann and Kaempffer and the mysterious stranger, who seems to hold all the answers, approaches for a final showdown.
Though a semi-coherent synopsis can be gleaned from The Keep, the film is a complete mess. This is largely due to its troubled production; over schedule and over budget, Paramount took the film away from Michael Mann with less than two-thirds of the thing shot. This is reflected by the general deterioration of the film after the first third, which showed some good promise with an atmospheric and suspenseful progression (the highlights of the film are Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack and the tracking shot through the endless dark of the crypt) and there is meticulous attention to detail in the soldiers’ uniforms. From there, the studio strategy was to hack together something to shove into theatres to recoup some cash, this results in some bargain basement effects with a monster that looks like a skinless Arnold Schwarzenegger being defeated by a silver Maglite. Even though it was filmed in Wales, more could have been made of the set (craftily splicing in some stock footage would have reinforced the mountain setting). Instead reams of footage seem to have gone missing with central characters such as Woermann disappearing for most of the film. Its almost as if the plot is passed round the characters like a relay baton.
But through all of this there are glimpses of what could have been, a brief discussion between the feuding Woermann and Kaempffer looks at the dynamics of German military units and the emotional attraction of fascism, while Molesar’s revelation to Kaempffer that ‘I come from you’ hints at the true source of evil. It is the corrupt nature of those inside the Keep that facilitates Molesar’s (and therefore evil’s) very existence, in the same way that a corrupt world facilitated Hitler’s rise to power, but this is lost amongst the disrespectful editing and appalling effects.
Because of the film’s troubled production, there are at least three different versions of The Keep that pop up on either video, cable or terrestrial, each with an equally mysterious ending which suggests that somewhere in the studio vaults there is some semblance of a complete and coherent film.
American writer/director whose flashy, dramatic style has made for considerable commerical success on the big and small screen. After writing for television during the late 70s, he made his debut with the thriller Thief. The Keep was a failed horror adaptation, but Mann's TV cop show Miami Vice was a massive international success, while 1986's Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, was one of the decade's best thrillers.
Last of the Mohicans was a rip-roaring period adventure, Heat a dynamic if overlong cops 'n' robbers story, and The Insider a gripping real-life conspiracy thriller. 2002's Ali, Mann's much-touted biography of the legendary boxer, was a bit of an anti-climax, but as ever, stylishly rendered. Mann's next film was the thriller Collateral, starring Tom Cruise as a ruthless contract killer, and his big screen updating of Miami Vice divided opinion, as did his vintage gangster recreation Public Enemies. His cyber-thriller Blackhat was a resounding flop.