Halloween Horror: The Keep (1983)

Looking for a horror film to keep you up at night? Seeking out a monster movie gem from the past? Want to know what to avoid on Netflix? From now until Halloween, the Three Brothers will be reviewing various horror films in an effort to get into the Gothic spirit of the season. It's also an effort to catch up on key films in a genre often overlooked in critical discourse.

A seldom seen Michael Mann supernatural thriller from 1983, The Keep is a bad movie for its strange intentions and misguided style, not for artistic vacuity, base commercial motivations, or lack of skill. Which is to say, it’s the kind of bad movie that’s at least curious but rarely produced by Hollywood today.

The phrase “Michael Mann supernatural thriller” might throw you off if you’re familiar with Mann’s work. But what if I told you it’s about Nazis and German soldiers who occupy a small Romanian mountain village in 1941 and take an interest in the gigantic old keep beside the village? Throw in Ian McKellen as a Jewish professor diverted from the death camps by the Nazis in order to explain the strange phenomena transpiring at the keep, and Scott Glenn as a non-emoting superpowered drifter with glowing eyes and an incomprehensible ability to seduce the professor’s daughter (Alberta Watson). It sounds like a field day for ironic amusement, no?

But this is a Michael Mann film after all, and so all of this is played deadly serious in square, flat framing and accompanied by pulsing synth (provided by Tangerine Dream). Unfortunately, Mann’s style doesn’t jell with the supernatural thriller material. At the beginning of the film, he manages to enhance the eerie atmosphere by restricting the camera and creating a sense of spatial confusion in the viewer. But the synth and restrained camerawork become more of a hinderance than an enhancement as the film progresses, draining the film of any sort of amusement or campy enjoyment.

Likewise, while I get a sense of the larger ideas Mann seems to be driving at, they develop in no understandable way. He interestingly begins to probe the divide within the German forces between the fanatical Nazi soldiers and the more cynical Wehrmacht (regular armed forces), but I’m not sure of the significance of such probings alongside the supernatural story. Ian McKellen’s Jewish professor must choose whether to side with an evil supernatural force in order to defeat a great material evil, but his ethical dilemma soon gives way to confusing shouting in a preposterous voice.

Later on, the plot becomes borderline incomprehensible despite the abundance of slow-mo shots and drawn-out scenes. Mann is known for his deadpan male expert protagonists, but Scott Glenn’s drifter-hero is a complete mystery, and not in any way that piqued my interest (other than why he’s involved in a cheesy sex scene with the professor’s daughter).

I’ve heard that the original cut was much longer, but unlike some online commentators who think the film’s a jampacked mess, trying to do too much in too little time, I would consider it a strangely empty dud. For example, I have no idea why there are extended scenes where Scott Glenn does nothing but walk. The intended climax is particularly drawn-out and boring. The story would probably make an intriguing 10-page short story. As a film, I can only faintly recommend it as an item of curiosity for completist Michael Mann fans, supernatural horror buffs, and people who seek out genre movies with Nazis in them; the many oddities of The Keep will give few other viewers much pleasure.

3 out of 10

The Keep (1983, USA/UK)

Directed by Michael Mann; screenplay by Michael Mann based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson; starring Ian McKellen, Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Jürgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, and Gabriel Byrne.