Michael Mann fans are a loyal breed, but even among his most ardent fanatics, THE KEEP is not held in the highest regard. Mann is primarily known for his character studies of cops and robbers, set against the neon-drenched streets of rain-drenched Chicago or sun-soaked Los Angeles. This was Mann’s third directorial effort after the made-for-television THE JERICHO MILE and 1981’s THIEF. It only feels like a mis-step thirty years later, as audiences and fans have grown accustomed to a certain style tropes since then. On the surface, THE KEEP doesn’t necessarily seem like it fits in with the output of the man who brought us Miami Vice and Crime Story, but despite its elements of the fantastic, THE KEEP stands up well next to Michael Mann’s other tales of morally ambiguous men caught between two worlds as well as the nature of good and evil, right and wrong.
In 1983, horror movies were hot in Hollywood, particularly movies based on modern horror literature. 1983 saw the release of three Stephen King adaptations — THE DEAD ZONE, CHRISTINE and CUJO. It isn’t surprising that Paramount would be interested in releasing an adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep, since it had been critically lauded and spent some time on the New York Times bestsellers list. Michael Mann adapted the book and directed the film, but THE KEEP, released in December of 1983, was not well received critically, and it bombed at the box office.
THE KEEP tells the tale of Officer Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) and his command of German officers during World War II who are charged with the task of guarding a mysterious fortress in Romania circa 1942. Two of his soldiers. in an attempt to find fortune and glory, unwittingly release a mysterious force that begins dispatching the German soldiers one by one. Eventually the SS shows up, including a young Gabriel Byrne, to investigate the goings on, as they believe the German soldiers are being offed by the Romanian villagers. Reluctantly, a Jewish historian (Ian McKellen) is released from a death camp along with his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) and called in to shed light on the mysterious goings on at the castle. All the while, a mysterious, supernatural character, Glaeken (Scott Glenn) travels from Greece to The Keep via motorcycle to do battle with the evil released from the Keep.
Yes, it’s a mess, but it’s also a visually stunning mess. F. Paul Wilson called the film version of his book, “Visually stunning, but utterly incomprehensible.”
THE KEEP is often considered “Michael Mann’s horror film” but the argument could be made that MANHUNTER is a much more terrifying film and actually contains more horror elements; Mann is quoted as saying that “[THE KEEP] is a fairy story for grown ups.”
He adds, “Fairy tales have the power of dreams – from the outside. I decided to stylize the art direction and photography extensively, but use realistic characterization and dialogue.” Mann’s visual style is prevalent throughout the film, and indeed, it adds to the dream-like nature of the story. The setting of The Keep itself is sparsely lit, with moody lighting and plenty of fog, giving an almost Hammer-style feel to the proceedings.
Mann intended to make something very expressionistic, like a dream. At its essence, THE KEEP plays like a haunted house movie with a touch of E.C. Comics — except instead of a Victorian mansion in England, the setting is an abandoned fortress in Romania. While Mann is known for his use of sprawling, modern cityscapes, it is interesting to see him shoot in an earthier environment, the countryside of Romania. Mann displayed his visual prowess ten years later in 1992’s LAST OF THE MOHICANS with its use of the vistas and forests of the East Coast.
Jürgen Prochnow’s Officer Woermann is the kind of protagonist that Michael Mann loves to delve into. Woermann is a anti-fascist German soldier who, when confronted by Gabriel Byrne’s SS Officer Kaempffer regarding Woermann’s inability to lead his men, states that “My competence was proven in combat against soldiers who shoot back; not slaughtering civilians.”
Woermann is a soldier who may not be on the right side of history, yet his moral compass and his code do not fall in line with the true evil of the SS. In that way Officer Woermann has a lot in common with James Caan’s Frank, the professional safecracker in Mann’s previous film THIEF; he is a man on the wrong side of history, with a job to do. His moral compass is skewed, but he’s not as bad as the real bad guys. In THIEF, Frank’s life was torn apart by the Mafia, while in THE KEEP, Woermann’s main foils are the Nazi army. Woermann, while fighting for the Axis powers, makes it his duty to protect Eva, not only from the evil of The Keep, but also from the evils of the SS officers who attempt to sexually assault her. No writer will ever conceive villains as evil as the Nazis… and they were real.
Meanwhile, Scott Glenn’s character, Glaeken, is one of the coolest things featured in THE KEEP. In more traditional horror movies, the supernatural villain does battle with regular folk; it’s the ordinary versus the extraordinary. For a change, THE KEEP gives the audience a mysterious, supernatural hero who is evenly matched with the antagonist, the released demon Radu Molasar.
Molasar is everything you would expect from a demon in a Michael Mann movie. He’s all red neon eyes cutting through thick fog. This monster trapped in the castle keep resembles the coolest Masters Of The Universe toy you never owned. It wouldn’t have been surprising if a Radu Molasar action figure had been released, because Mayfair Games had put out a board game to coincide with the release of the film. The creature design is most impressive, and one of the highlights of this film.
This was the second collaboration between Michael Mann and Tangerine Dream. Tangerine Dream’s score has probably become more famous than the movie itself as Tangerine Dream fans are notorious for being completists. The score is not necessarily musical cues as it creates moody soundscapes that compliment Mann’s smoke and lights in creating a dreamy tone.
Michael Mann’s original cut of THE KEEP ran three hours long, and was eventually chopped to an hour and a half when released theatrically. Michael Mann has all but disowned this cut of the film. There are also prints in circulation that use an entirely different score. I would imagine that the theatrical cut being an hour and a half shorter than intended is what leads to the incomprehensible nature of which F. Paul Wilson spoke. The film really takes on an epic feel during the climax that appears to be truncated. There does seem to be a bit of a Michael Mann renaissance occurring as we speak, so perhaps this will lead to audiences finally getting to experience THE KEEP as originally intended. There are several clips of extended scenes featured in the film’s trailer. As it stands, THE KEEP is a slick, creepy little modern fairy tale that sits nicely next to the rest of Mann’s 1980s output, particularly as a double-feature with MANHUNTER.