by Mel Valentin
Michael Mann's career has spanned television and film over four decades and close to forty years ("Miami Vice," "Ali," "The Insider," "Heat," "Last of the Mohicans," "Manhunter," "Thief"). Mann's first narrative film, "The Jericho Mile," it was a made-for-television feature-length film about an Olympic-level runner serving a life term in San Quentin, aired on ABC in 1979. Filmed on location (at considerable risk), "The Jericho Mile" was superlative, gripping drama. Two years later, Mann wrote and directed "Thief," an indie-level, urban crime film. For his follow-up effort, Mann decided to adapt F. Paul Wilson's bestselling period horror novel, "The Keep." It bombed with moviegoers and critics.Set in 1941 as Nazi Germany consolidates its control over Western and Eastern Europe, The Keep follows Klaus Woermann (JŁrgen Prochnow), a captain in the German Wehrmacht, and his men as they arrive at an abandoned citadel in the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. The ancient keep is unlike anything Woermann has ever seen. The keepís walls are embedded with one-hundred-and-eighty nickel crosses. Alexandru (William Morgan Sheppard), the village mason, claims the keep is haunted, but Woermann dismisses Alexandruís warning. Woermann recognizes, however, that the citadel was constructed to keep something from escaping rather than to keep invaders out. On the first night, the demon imprisoned inside the keep murders two soldiers. But thatís only the beginning. Each night, more soldiers die.
"A "guilty pleasure" by any definition."
In response to Woermann's increasingly desperate pleas (and to get reassigned, which his superiors refuse), the German high command sends a detachment of SS (Einsatzkommandos) troops led by Major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) to the keep. Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), suspects a more mundane, natural cause: anti-German partisans hiding in the Romanian village. A message scrawled in a dead language on a wall inside the keep, however, convince Woermann and Kaempffer to seek help in deciphering the message. Ironically, their only option is a Jewish medievalist, Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen), and his daughter, Eva (Alberta Watson). In Greece, a mysterious stranger, Glaeken (Scott Glenn), heads to Romania, hoping to stop the demonís escape from the keep.
Viewers who expect verisimilitude with period war or period horror films will find a great deal to dislike with The Keep, especially the production design. Mann relied on German expressionistic set design (circa 1920s) as a baseline for the keepís artificial-looking interiors. More positively, Mannís decision to build the exteriors and the Romanian town in an abandoned quarry in Wales, England adds a level of realism otherwise missing from The Keep. Mann used construction cranes to move equipment and people to and from the set every day (a small price to pay for the eventual results onscreen).
Mann's stylistic choices make little aesthetic sense. Mann never met a smoke or fog machine he didn't like or feel compelled to use in just about every scene, needed or unneeded. Obscuring the interior sets makes sense, both aesthetically (for mood and atmosphere) and financially (the more smoke used, the less detailed the sets have to be). Mann also seems a fan of dramatic lighting, juxtaposing the angled walls of the citadel with angled lighting (presumably from the outside world) and, of course, slowly drifting smoke. Mann also uses smoke effects to keep the monster hidden from view, at least until the end, when the red-eyed demon's emergence reveals an actor in a hyper-muscular, rubber suit (it's as disappointing as it sounds).
Mann commissioned an anachronistic, non-classical score from electronic music pioneers Tangerine Dream. The score is suitably moody, creating a semi-psychedelic, oneiric haze that often matches the smoke-and-lighting effects Mann uses repeatedly for scenes inside the keep. Tangerine Dream's score becomes borderline cheesy, however, when itís used to underline a seemingly endless procession of slow-motion shots (soldiers running toward the camera, soldiers running away from the camera, characters in an intimate embrace, etc.). Thereís another negative: Tangerine Dreamís score does little (actually, it does nothing) to suggest or maintain The Keepís more overt horror elements.
The mix of Gothic horror with World War II horrors may strike some viewers as callous, callow, and insensitive. That may be true, but if Steven Spielberg's adventure/fantasy, Raiders of the Lost Ark, proved that caricaturing Nazis could be highly profitable. The Keep, though, was a self-consciously serious film, art-horror if you prefer. There was none of the tongue-in-cheek humor found in Raiders of the Lost Ark to make The Keep more palatable to general audiences or to remind them that they were seeing fantasy not reality. Not surprisingly, The Keep failed at the box office, leading Mann to television work (e.g., Miami Vice) for several years before trying his hand again directing feature films with 1986's Manhunter (Hannibal Lecter's first appearance onscreen).Ultimately, "The Keep" is a minor film by a major filmmaker, a misfire, an attempt by a talented filmmaker to try out an unfamiliar genre. That it almost works is a testament to Mann's abilities, but, as Mann himself has admitted in interviews, "The Keep" is a cautionary tale about filmmaking: going into production without a finished screenplay (alas, a lesson Mann forget when he brought "Miami Vice" to the big screen last year). It's difficult to imagine the long-rumored three-hour cut being appreciably better than the released version. Still, even with all its flaws, "The Keep" should have been available on DVD or Blu-Ray long ago (when so much inferior product is).
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originally posted: 01/11/07 14:51:34