What a weird fucking movie. I’m glad I watched it.
The Keep, from 1983, was Michael Mann’s second directorial effort, coming two years after Thief. The film tells the story of a unit of German soldiers who occupy a remote castle keep in Romania during World War II. But, this is no normal keep. The walls are inset throughout with over two hundred crosses made of nickel. The battlements appear designed not to keep an invading army outside of the walls, but rather to keep something in. There’s even a creepy caretaker on site to make sure that anyone who crosses the threshold knows the story of all those before who tried to spend a single night in THE KEEP. Spooky.
But, the German commander, Captain Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), is unperturbed. He has orders, after all, and those orders allow no time to indulge in peasant legends and superstitions. That is, until his men start dropping like flies every night. Something…evil…has been unleashed in the keep. It only seems to grow more agitated with the arrival of SD Sturmbannführer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne). Woermann may have been Wehrmacht, which earns him a bit of a pass when it comes to a German WW2 movie character, but Kaempffer is pure Nazi. Mann did a good job of making sure there was no way, at all, a rational audience member could sympathize with this monster. He is why we went to war.
The captain and the Gestapo fella are stumped. Woermann is convinced the keep is host to some supernatural menace, while Kaempffer sees partisans around every corner. They bring in a Jewish scholar, Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellan), and his daughter, Eva (Alberta Watson), from a death camp to solve the mystery for them. He doesn’t have much to offer, but that’s no problem, as the evil in the keep is all too willing to keep up all the death, making any lengthy investigation of its motives inherently pointless.
Good thing, too. I can’t imagine what would have happened with this flick if Mann had felt burdened with providing the audience a coherent narrative. Hell no, man! That’s not what this film is about. What it is about remains a mystery to me, still. But as of this writing I’m only about an hour away from this thing. Maybe as the months go by, as the pages of the calendar continue to turn, and significant distance is placed between this viewing and I, insight will come in a flash. All of a sudden, I will know, as if I’ve always known, what the fuck a plastic anatomy model from a high school biology course is doing terrorizing a bunch of Nazis. Until then, I feel the wise decision is to wallow in just how insanely bizarre this movie is (ten months later, now, and I still don’t have a clue).
I can’t lie and say this was a good movie. But I’m having a hard time thinking of anything I’ve seen in years that was even this remotely interesting. I am captivated by this film. So much about it would be otherwise unforgivably sloppy. The sound is atrocious. Ian McKellan was just dreadful. But his was about the only performance I didn’t care for. Byrne and Prochnow were good, and even Robert Prosky delivered a scathing performance in a scene opposite McKellan. Look closely at that scene and you’ll see the producers chickened out and silenced part of one of Prosky’s lines.
The special effects look like they cost about a buck and a half. The climax is sweet, but it involves a sacred, ancient object that is obviously a poorly dressed up flashlight. I could see the lens. But none of that matters a whit.
I was entertained beyond all justification by this movie. Even after the monster was revealed, sans smoke, and I was laughing so hard I was becoming concerned about the strain negatively effecting my health, I couldn’t look away. Mann creates an atmosphere in this movie that has to be experienced to be believed. It’s surreal, gothic, very 1980s, and cheaper than a dirty water dog, but it feels, if not real, then appropriate. It fit everything that happened on screen, every nuance. I’m not exactly sure what Michael Mann has crafted with The Keep, but I think, of all the films in his oeuvre, this is the last one that should have been left lingering without a proper digital release. The Keep is better than Alien: Resurrection.