A lot of folks probably don't know that one of Michael Mann’s earliest movies is a horror film. The Keep, a 1983 flick that the filmmaker behind Heat, Collateral, and Miami Vice wrote and directed, is about a group of Nazis that come across an ancient, imprisoned evil in a castle in Romania's Carpathian Alps in 1941. Mann may be best known for his crime films, but you can’t get much more criminal than Nazis.
The film starts off stark and rainy. Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) and his Nazi hordes ride through the Carpathian forest in tanks and trucks, bound for the keep. The beginning, like the rest of the film, is slow and dream-like. A few scenes in the film play out in slow motion, with odd lighting. The plot and aesthetics of the film really just reminded me of a fairy tale. I can’t stress how dreamy the film is. Four words: Soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.
The evil I mentioned is released when two Nazis, who believe that one of the various crosses adorning the walls of the keep is silver and hides a large cache of the stuff, open a doorway to an impossibly huge cavern within the keep that imprisons the castle's monster (a creature named Radu Molasar, apparently).
We see some sort of ethereal mist float up out of the chasm, and then, a soldier that was hanging over the expanse is essentially ripped in half. The soldier that was keeping him from falling soon explodes from the sheer force of the escaping monster. The evil has been unleashed.
When more and more Nazi soldiers are killed, Gabriel Byrne’s Major Kaempffer and his soldiers, who are even worse Nazis, arrive at the keep to lay down the law. Kaempffer immediately orders the execution of several men and takes hostages from the village. This is where we learn that Captain Woermann is really an honorable man in Nazi’s clothing – he protests passionately when the villagers are killed and immediately butts heads with Kaempffer.
When ancient writing appears inside the keep, Kaempffer orders that Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen), a Jewish professor that has studied the keep in the past, be brought to the castle (from a death camp, no less) to investigate.
The Keep is a mess. The editing and flow of the story is off and, while the film is only around an hour and a half long, Mann and his crew managed to cram a lot into the convoluted plot, including a love angle. The film also has absolutely no clue who its lead character is. Prochnow seems to be the main character for a while, but the film loses him after Ian McKellen is introduced. And McKellen himself really isn't even the hero of the film - another supernatural character portrayed by Scott Glenn fills that role. I need to point out that I watched the studio version of The Keep. There's apparently an extended version of the film that goes on for a while longer. It sounds even stranger.
A peculiar aspect of the film is the use of cross imagery in weird situations. The keep is filled with crosses, and I mentioned that one of them essentially leads to the death of two soldiers. What I can only describe as “the cross position” pops up during a sex scene. Since a theme of the film is science versus religion, the sometimes negative depictions of the crosses are very interesting.
And yet, there's something to The Keep. It's gothic and gloomy, and the dreamy quality lends a classy, surreal tone to the film. Everyone in the film turns in a great performance. The keep itself frequently provides for an interesting background – the castle’s architecture and angles produce some very interesting cinematography.
As I mentioned, all the actors involved turned in great performances, and that’s what really keeps the film from being completely forgettable. One could argue that Prochnow’s haunted portrayal of a reluctant Nazi is the backbone of the film entirely. Of course, McKellen could class up an athlete's foot powder commercial, so he's a great part of the cast. He even has a bit of a proto-“You shall not pass!” moment at the end of the film during a confrontation with the monster. It took me a while to realize that Gabriel Byrne was the evil Major Kaempffer. It's a shame that the film will probably always be underseen, as Byrne turns in an excellent, twisted performance.
The Nazi component of the film is interesting. There are so many movies where Nazis are involved with the occult and monsters, such as the Indiana Jones series and Hellboy. It's very fitting that one of the more evil groups of people in history will forever be linked with monsters.
The Keep is worth a watch, but it's definitely not Mann's best work. I really did enjoy the work of the film's cast, so I'm going to split up my review a little bit.