Not that anyone asked for my opinion, but Michael Mann is my favorite living filmmaker. (Favorite of all time: Sergio Leone. Duh.) Among the ranks of living, actively working filmmakers, Michael Mann is at the top of the crowd. As I pointed out in my BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA piece, Mann, like John Carpenter, is basically a contemporary of Spielberg, Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma, Friedkin, Forman, and Eastwood, but he is scarcely ever mentioned alongside that group of New Hollywood names. Carpenter is at least welcomed into the pantheon of great horror directors. Mann is the odd man out, a man without a movement.
One reason may be that he started just a little later than those guys. The other is that he’s so closely identified with television (Miami Vice, Crime Story, etc.) by some people. Recent critical groupthink has attempted to place Mann within the ranks of the MTV-generation directors, the best of whom being Ridley and Tony Scott, but Mann’s always been more serious-minded and less distracted by visuals, although his visuals are usually beautiful. To him, style is implicitly connected to story. I love Tony Scott, but Tony Scott is the type who shoots a movie like THE FAN in similar style to DAYS OF THUNDER. He’s formally audacious but not usually in a way that is a function of the specific story being told, which is never the case with Michael Mann. To my eye, Michael Mann is the single most stylish director whose approach is also functional. His binary focus is on story and character, and on the most artful ways to convey both. In other words, this is a prestige director who just happens to work frequently in genre.
Anyway, who cares about what classification goes where: As far as I’m concerned, Michael Mann is a filmmaking hero. I literally study his movies. He’s always at the forefront of visual techniques and technology, and no one can set a mood or use music remotely as well as he can. He’s a stylist who is equally as interested in performance and storytelling. He’s incapable of making an inert film. His approach is dense and expansive. There’s something to watch and rewatch every time out. Every single one of the movies he’s made is worth seeing, for some reason or for many others.
THE KEEP is his only out-and-out horror film. MANHUNTER is his scariest film, but it’s technically a crime thriller: Those monsters are all human. THE KEEP deals with forces beyond this world. It’s also one of the hardest Michael Mann films to track down. This was a problem for me for a long time, since I’m a big horror head and so Michael Mann doing a horror movie is a dream prospect to a guy like me. I was a child when it was released theatrically, I never saw it air on cable, and it’s been historically rare on the home video front. THE KEEP makes occasional appearances on the repertory circuit which is exactly why it is so critical to support such theaters if you’re lucky enough to have access to them.
THE KEEP (1983) was Michael Mann’s second theatrical feature film. It’s the bridge between the hugely underestimated THIEF (1981) and the transcendent MANHUNTER (1986). THE KEEP was based on the horror novel of the same name by F. Paul Wilson, a terrific genre novelist. I ended up reading the book before I saw the movie, and it’s an excellently creepy story, bold and evocative. Wilson has disavowed the movie, which is absolutely his right, but that’s a little harsh in my estimation. Keep in mind how Stephen King disavowed Stanley Kubrick’s version of THE SHINING. I’m not saying THE KEEP is on that level; only making the point that great novelists may differ from great directors on the notions of what makes compelling cinema.
Basically, the main plot goes this way:
During World War Two, a battalion of Nazi soldiers is dispatched to an ancient fortress in Transylvania, to hold it down as a strategic vantage point. While there, the Nazis unleash a timeless supernatural being that surpasses even their own evil. They desperately try to force a local expert and his daughter to help them defeat it, but only a mysterious stranger, who has recently arrived from far away, has any chance of stopping it.
Creating Nazi protagonists is a hugely risky move. I was resistant to reading THE KEEP for that reason, because I hate Nazis that much. But that makes it all the more satisfying once the murderous specter starts picking them off one-by-one, first filling their black hearts with pants-crapping fear, and then eliminating them for real. And on the higher level, the author does an admirable job of delineating the various forms of evil. Human evil comes in many degrees of awfulness, and when you throw demons into the mix, well, all bets are off. F. Paul Wilson is just a tremendously engaging writer, both of short stories and of novels (I strongly recommend his “Repairman Jack” series), and one more time, I suggest you pick up anything else he’s done.
The film version is well-cast, as is generally the case with Michael Mann. The main German characters are played by an Irishman and an authentic German, Gabriel Byrne and Jürgen Prochnow. One proves to be a far more insidious bastard than the other. When their officers start dying one by one at the titular keep, the Germans struggle to figure out why. (Karma is not named as a suspect.) A relatively young Ian McKellen, then primarily a stage and television actor, anchors the cast as the distinguished Jewish historian who the Nazis bring in to figure out what exactly is happening. His daughter is played by Alberta Watson, maybe best known as the mom in SPANKING THE MONKEY. She becomes the love interest to Scott Glenn’s character, that aforementioned mysterious stranger who has a mythical connection to the legendary evil at the keep. Robert Prosky, of Mann’s THIEF and Joe Dante’s GREMLINS 2, plays a local priest.
The cinematography is by Alex Thomson, who later worked with Ridley Scott and David Fincher. The images have a stark yet hazy, epically moody look. There is a contrast between the period setting and the more modern look. The production design by John Box (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA!) certainly helps keep the film reasonably grounded in the past while Mann and his collaborators bring it simultaneously into the future.
The score for THE KEEP is by the electronic music group Tangerine Dream, who Mann used first for THIEF and who went on to compose the scores for films like RISKY BUSINESS, LEGEND, Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK, and William Friedkin’s SORCERER. Their sound dominated cinema in the 1980s, and in Tangerine Dream are the seeds of most modern movie music, since it’s a short leap from Tangerine Dream to their countryman Hans Zimmer, one of the most prolific (and widely imitated) film composers of the 1990s, and so on right on through last month’s MAN OF STEEL. Are we ready to give Michael Mann his due for his effect on how most modern movies sound?
Admittedly, THE KEEP has its drawbacks. This is a story that demands special effects that didn’t quite exist in 1983. By the time the ancient evil rears its fearsome head in physical form, it arrives surrounded by effects that were probably somewhat dodgy then, let alone now. And between the look and the score and some of the performances, it operates on a frequency of airiness, even dream-like atmosphere, that may not be as absorbing for some audience members as for others.
But it’s a necessary piece of the development of one of modern cinema’s most necessary artists. One suspects, from the way the rest of his filmography shook out, that Michael Mann decided this type of supernatural horror wasn’t his preferred métier. As THIEF was a crime drama, so too was Mann’s next project, TV’s Miami Vice, and the next novel he adapted to film was Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, which became MANHUNTER. That movie is an inarguable classic, and it doesn’t happen without THE KEEP.
Still, THE KEEP does contain some keys to the Mann rubric. As the scenes between Scott Glenn and Alberta Watson show, this is the rare mainstream American director who doesn’t shy away from a robust sex scene. And the multi-tiered strata of heroism and villainy of THE KEEP are certainly of a piece with Mann’s morally complex worldview. Some bad guys are worse than others. Some heroes are more wounded than others. And so on.
Lastly, and this is a pet interest for me as a fellow member of the tribe, but it’s notable that this is the one film made by a director who is culturally Jewish that directly addresses the notion of Judaism. Unlike other big-name Jewish directors (Spielberg, Barry Levinson, the Coens), Mann’s work does not tend to address that aspect. Of course, THE KEEP enlists Judaism in a genre setting, and this is no more a religious text than a Dracula film (which it basically is, anyway), but it’s still something a guy like me likes to think about sometimes.
THE KEEP is a film that has tended to dwell between the cracks. Maybe it deserves a closer look. A film doesn’t have to be its director’s definitive masterpiece to be well worth parsing.
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