The Keep is a World War II fairy tale. Just think about that for a second. It was Michael Mann’s (Heat/ Collateral) second film following his self assured hyper stylised neo noir debut, 1981’s Thief with James Caan.
The Keep clearly is something very different, the first and only time Mann delved into fantasy and horror. On paper it sounds amazing, a Nazi garrison is sent to guard a mysterious structure in Romania. There, a dark supernatural entity begins slaughtering them one by one. The SS, led by a particularly brutal Gabriel Byrne is called in and enlists the help of a Jewish academic Ian Mckellen and his daughter from a concentration camp. Scott Glen pops up as some kind of supernatural creature with glowing eyes as we wait for an inevitable battle between good and evil.
Okay, so it’s also a bit ridiculous. But that’s part of its charm. It looks remarkable, the framing and composition is spectacular, often shot in slow motion with billowing dry ice. It’s an 80’s film clip come to life and its impossible not to be awestruck by the production design and the precociousness of the shots. Like Thief, it also features a pretty great Tangerine Dream soundtrack.
Unfortunately though it’s almost totally incoherent. Apparently Mann’s cut of about three hours was trimmed down to 93 minutes, thus many strange things happen, such as Glenn and McKellen’s daughter meeting in one scene and inexplicably getting all coitus in the next. The dialogue too is almost impossible to follow, it’s quite impressive, philosophising about the nature of good and evil, but quite incoherent, and the narrative is all over the place. But boy is it beautiful. Probably the biggest issue though is the monster itself, which ultimately ends up looking like a steroid addicted bodybuilder that shoots lasers out of its eyes.
Apparently Mann was quite over budget, rewrote the dialogue most days and then his visual effects guy died two weeks into postproduction, so it wasn’t the easiest of shoots. This is probably the reason that Mann has disavowed it, and it hasn’t appeared on DVD until now (that and issues clearing Tangerine Dream tracks). Yet it’s such an amazing creation filled with complex contradictions that it’s simultaneously so bad it’s good and jaw droopingly amazing. How do you reconcile that? Whilst it’s easy to lament how Mann’s ultimate vision was ultimately butchered, there’s something to be said about how this version’s shameless incoherence and nonsensical beauty have contributed to make The Keep something very very special. You’ll be confused, but you wont be disappointed.