Monday, February 12, 2018

Cult Movie Theatre: Michael Mann's "The Keep"

Evil lurks within the walls of The Keep.
It's always fun to speculate on "what might have been" for a film that was tampered with after it was completed. The classic example is The Magnificent Ambersons, in which RKO trimmed 50 minutes and reshot the ending after Orson Welles turned in his final cut. Even in its current version, Ambersons is a fine film. One can't say that about Michael Mann's The Keep (1983). Still, Mann's picture has acquired a legion of devoted fans over the years and that was enough to convince me to watch it again.
Prochnow starred in 1981's Das Boot.
The premise is certainly intriguing. In 1941, a German army unit arrives in a small town in the Carpathian Alps in Romania. Its mission is to guard a tactically significant mountain pass. Captain Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) discovers an old keep near the village, which seems ideal for basing his unit's camp. An elderly man and his sons, who serve as the keep's caretakers ("We do what needs doing"), warns the captain ominously: "You cannot stay here."

Of course, that doesn't dissuade the Germans, who take over the keep. That night, two guards ignore orders and try to steal one of the 108 silver crosses embedded in the stone walls. This act awakens a demon named Molasar and all hell breaks loose. The Germans free a Jewish scholar (Ian McKellen) from a concentration camp, hoping that he can deal with Molasar. Concurrently, the demon's sudden appearance is "sensed" by a mysterious stranger (Scott Glenn) whose eyes glow eerily.

The creepy Molasar.
Director Michael Mann's original cut of The Keep ran 210 minutes, hardly a realistic running time for a horror film in the 1980s. He subsequently re-edited the movie to a more reasonable two hours. Unfortunately, after unenthusiastic audience screenings, Paramount trimmed an additional 24 minutes. The result is a choppy film with a handful of effective sequences negated by long, talky passages and an over-the-top, special effects-filled climax. To the film's defense, the final showdown with Molasar was surely impacted by the death of special effects wizard Wally Veevers (Curse of the Demon) during the production. 

Michael Mann, the creative mind behind Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), and the Miami Vice TV series (1984-90), has a reputation as a visual stylist who knows how to fuse images and music. He creates a dark, dense, oppressive atmosphere in The Keep. The opening scenes in the pouring rain establish the mood from the onset. However, I'm not a fan of the electronic score composed by the German group Tangerine Dream. While it was responsible for some memorable music in Risky Business (1984) and Sorcerer (1977), those were contemporary-set films. I found the fusion of contemporary music and a World War II setting in The Keep to be more distracting than interesting.

McKellen as Dr. Cuza.
It's hard to evaluate the film's performances given that so much of the acting was deleted! Judging solely from the 96-minute version, none of the actors make an impression--even the typically excellent McKellen.

There are interesting ideas in The Keep. The way that Molasar masks its evil and manipulates McKellen's character has almost biblical connotations. Still, there's just not enough substance to make it a good movie. Perhaps, one day Mann will put together a "director's cut" and we can assess The Keep as he envisioned it. For now, it's an oddity from a fine filmmaker and nothing more than a cult film.


  1. Having liked the Paul Wilson novel that it's based on I saw this when it was originally released. All I really remember about it was that it was interesting looking and that the awful and inappropriate score was very distracting. A few years ago I saw it on TV, but the image was cropped from the original Cinemascope aspect ratio, making it completely unwatchable. If it were available in its original format I'd probably give it another shot.

  2. Ah yes, a Director's Cut sounds like it would be very helpful.

  3. If I can ask a question - What is a Keep?

    1. It's a fortress that typically served as the inner stronghold of a castle in Medieval times.

  4. I was stoked to see this film at the time after reading a preview for it in Cinefantastique magazine and was soundly disappointed with the final result. One of those movies where literally nothing works: the performances, the score, the effects, nothing. I didn't realize Wally Veveers was involved with the effects but that explains why the devilish cloud of smoke looked so familiar. Gary Hendrix's excellent "Paperbacks From Hell" has me in the mood for some vintage eighties pulp horror so I might just track the novel down.

  5. I remember this movie. It was PANTS!! There was an object that the demon needed/was controlled by(?) All it was was a short metal cylinder. No budget for anything better?? Pants-a-lot! Pants!!