Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Jurgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn
Review Author: Tony
Rating: 3.5 / 5 Guinness
Michael Mann is one of the most accomplished directors in our lifetime. While not quite on the tier of Bergman, Hitchcock, and Scorsese, Mann is just on the cusp of the all-time greats. Mann is known for his fast-paced, kinetic style that is present through hyper-realistic gunfights or confrontation scenes with sharp, impactful dialogue that rivals Aaron Sorkin’s best work. Mann’s films are tight, focused, extremely well shot and usually focus on cops or criminals and their code of honor. And then there’s The Keep.
I’ve done a pretty good job of making it through Mann’s filmography but recently I stumbled upon this forgotten film. Marred by production issues and dissected for its original limited release, The Keep has been largely forgotten about and to this day has not received an official DVD or Blu Ray release. The bewilderment that a Michael Mann horror film existed fascinated me and I knew it had to be my next review for this Halloween season.
Set during the Second World War, a German regiment occupies a keep in a Romanian village. Under the command of Capt. Klaus Woermann, the soldiers are warned not to deface the keep which is strangely constructed and contains T shaped crosses made of nickel. Skeptical at first, Woermann brushes off these warnings as myths and fairytales and claims he has seen true horror in the form of war. Two greedy German soldiers are drawn to a mysterious light and pull one of the crosses from the wall inadvertently releasing an ancient evil. Soon soldiers begin to be picked off at an alarming rate which draws the attention of a mysterious stranger and a sadistic Sturmbannfuher, Erich Kaempffer.
Right off the bat, the film is gorgeously shot as it captures this eerie Romanian village and the vast mountains and forests surrounding it. The design of the actual keep is rather simple but at the same time ominous. There’s a centered shot early of a van driving through its doorway that oozed of an impending threat. The use of lighting and smoke throughout gives the film an almost ethereal vibe with heavenly whites and blues. Accompanied by a soundtrack by Tangerine Dream which is more famous than the actual film, largely due to it’s 80’s synth-pop sound and moody soundscapes. One of the biggest talking points about the film is its score and how peculiar it is due to the films WW2 setting.
The Keep sports a great cast with great actors such as Ian McKellen playing a Jewish professor, Gabriel Byrne as the ruthless Sturmbannfuher, and Scott Glenn as the mysterious stranger. All pale in comparison to Jurgen Prochnow who delivers a captivating performance as a conflicted German captain trying to maintain order and keep his vicious superior, Kaempffer, at bay as he sadistically harasses the villagers. While the film has a demonic entity that represents pure evil, Kaempffer serves as a juxtaposition for the evil inflicted by men. It’s an interesting contrast which revels in its historic setting and gives the film a more philosophical angle than many would expect to see in a horror film.
Despite all this praise and respect I have for the film, there’s one fundamental flaw that led to the film being critically slated, denounced by the author of the book the film is based on and denounced by the director. Half the damn film is missing!! Originally envisioned with a runtime of 210 minutes, the studio got cold feet coming up to release and cut the film down to a 96-minute runtime against Mann’s wishes. Crucial story elements such as the mysterious stranger’s backstory, his relationship with the demonic entity and a plethora of deleted scenes.
The studio interference led to a disjointed film with lots of exposition missing and a confusing narrative. Scott Glen was originally the lead character but only comes into the film halfway through and forms a romance with one of the other characters 30 seconds after meeting her. The relationship between Glenn’s character and the entity is never established, so I had to fill in the blanks myself. Scenes of the demonic entity corrupting the village were completely removed and a climactic action scene was abandoned after the special effect’s legend, Wally Veevers died during production. The hasty cut by the studio also led to unfinished and bad sound design.
Despite its flaws, The Keep is a fascinating film and one worthy of having its full story revealed. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like Paramount will ever be releasing a final cut and Mann has distanced himself from the movie so there’s little hope for a director’s cut.