DVD: Keep, The (1983)

February 22, 2020 | By

Film: Good

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Standard

Label:  Via Vision (Australia)

Region: 0 (NTSC)

Released:  Jan. 2020

Genre:  Horror / Supernatural

Synopsis: A WWII German tank commander has his authority usurped by the SS after a malevolent force is released from its bunker-like prison in rural Romania.

Special Features:  Theatrical Trailer




After making his feature film debut with the critically acclaimed dramatic thriller Thief (1981), Michael Mann set his sights on the WWII supernatural shocker The Keep, based on a hefty tome written by F. Paul Wilson, and published in 1981. By the time Paramount had slated the film for release, Mann’s longer edit had been hacked to 96 mins, resulting in a film that still offers incredibly rich visuals, but feels rushed and incoherent in spots.

The Globe and Mail’s wry and unforgiving film critic Jay Scott pegged The Keep as ‘cinema bizarre,’ with a creature resembling a walking slab of burnt steak. Mann more or less disowned the film – it remains his only feature to have endured an outrageously long progression from tape and laserdisc, and countless bootleg discs & digital rips to a legit DVD.

Licensed editions varied from reportedly fullscreen VHS quality streaming file to a crisp widescreen transfer licensed to Netflix several years ago, and an all-region fullscreen NTSC DVD from Australia. This new release from Via Vision is another all-region Aussie release, but sports a proper anamorphic transfer with a stereo 2.0 audio mix.

Tangerine Dream’s score never made its proposed legit release on vinyl nor CD, and what emerged in later years were bootlegs, re-recordings, an absurdly limited ‘authorized’ CD featuring barely any music from the final film edit, and fan-crafted evocations of what a complete soundtrack album should contain.

The Keep has remained a hypnotic cinematic mush which teases the viewer with gorgeous purple and pastel pink hues, and a fantastic Main Title sequence, but falters as widening gaps of logic and plot continuity transform Mann’s nearly 3 hour rough cut and reportedly contracted 2 hour edit into an hour and a half mess.

The audio mix – Dolby Stereo – feels unfinished, with some scenes stuck with wild on-set dialogue; dialogue exchanges are sometimes soft and murky; the score is a patchwork of material seemingly spread out to soften smash cuts and giant editorial leaps; the End Credits music ends prematurely into the title crawl; and there’s zero character development, leading to spastic edits and a similar patchwork of often terrible dialogue.

Whether Paramount wanted the film to meet a locked release date or enforced cost cutting measures for what it saw as an escalating disaster, what flickered across screens in 1983 and evolved into a genuine cult film on home video is still a strange, choppy impression of Wilson’s tale.

A WWII German tank division is assigned to secure the Dinu Pass in Romania, but during their first night a supernatural creature called Molasar is awakened after greedy stormtroopers hack away at the protective silver crosses from within a vault-like structure.

Name changes to some characters excepted, most of Wilson’s plot was retained by Mann in his original script.

After a SS commander Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) and his goons (including favourite Nazi character actor Wolf Kahler) are sent to quell “partisan” activities with brute force, their firm grip on soldiers and townsfolk are somewhat curtailed by increasingly insubordinate tank commander Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow, fresh from Das Boot), and the arrival of sickly Dr. Cusa (Ian McKellan), who was raised in the village and whose expertise is ancient languages.

Kaempffer (a play on the German word “fighter”) threatens to return Cusa and daughter Eva (Canadian Alberta Watson) to a concentration camp if mysterious messages carved within the Keep aren’t deciphered and enable the Nazis to control Molasar. Instead of helping the SS commander, Cusa is willing to free the being after it saves Eva from a gang rape, and returns Cusa to a youthful, healthy state.

Improbably, Kaempffer is unaware that the newly arrived stud staying within the village inn (and in plain view) is Glaeken (Scott Glenn, fresh off the martial arts thriller The Challenge), Molasar’s nemesis, who’s been mystically / suddenly / spasmodically awakened from a bed in Greece to battle and send the evil force back into the Keep forever.

The book and film title refers to the massive fortress created to restrain Molasar – locking the boogeyman from the outside rather than preventing humans from entering its bunker chambers and tunnels. The structure is also a giant metaphor for the secrets kept by the villagers, which include a priest (Robert Prosky), and a family of guardians (headed by the inimitable, gravel-voiced William Morgan Sheppard) who’ve maintained the prison for several generations.

Paramount may have hacked out whole scenes and dialogue exchanges (some material is clearly glimpsed in the terribly cut trailer), or Mann may have intended for the film to look and feel like a dreamy expressionistic, mystical thriller with minimal dialogue, and where performances are deliberately expressive: rage, glee, horror, greed, and outrage erupt with little modulation, much like an eerie German silent.

Mann also employs a visceral contrast between wide master shots and a range of sparingly applied medium and obsessively extreme close-ups, switching between images sedate, unnerving, and artfully hypnotic.

The Main Titles alone seem to suggest a Germanic-styled silent montage beginning with a dancing mist; a verdant bedewed dark forest revealed through a widening telephoto lens; constant editorial interplay between a lighted cigarette, gigantic eyes, massive grinding tank tracks; and a pink-drenched waterway in which the shoreline forms a seam between the upper empirical world and the murky unknown below the shoreline’s watery reflection.

From the first shot thru the full Main Titles, TD’s score evolves from an echoey rhythm track to sharp chords, and shimmering vocal effects that play over the reflecting water before a metronome pulse smothers the soundscape. As trucks and tanks are driven into the chasm where the village is firmly nestled, war vehicles, soldiers, and citizens move in slow-motion alongside a steady, leadened bass pulse.

Mann likes propulsive opening sequences – The Insider (1999) is similarly punchy as a blindfolded figure (Al Pacino) is driven through a busy Middle Eastern village street while pounding rhythms and shrill vocals add tension – but the stylization within The Keep‘s opening is further heightened as Mann ratchets back to real-time once the ‘masters of the world’ step out of their vehicles, and claim the town’s strategic assets, which include the Keep fortress.

Slo-mo shots recur in several striking moments – brightly backlit night watchmen running towards the silver crosses they’re about to carve away; a watchman’s nearly bisected torso sloshing out from the hole from where Molasar soon emerges in stormy cloud form; and notably Cusa stomping decisively down a tunnel towards Molasar, bearing the talisman which, when removed from the prison walls, will free the malevolent force.

There’s also the sudden love scene between billeted Glaeken and Eva, the latter sent to the inn for safety, yet deprived of her room and privacy by the somber, agile stranger. Buffed Glaeken’s eerie, strong and soft spoken, but why the two have an affair moments after their first encounter isn’t telescoped by anything; the seduction is a series of quick shots, and the core of their coupling is lengthened by staggered slo-mo as the pair sprawl across the widescreen image.

Lastly, Mann’s original ending – supposedly closer to the novel – was lopped off by the studio, leaving Eva groaning in slo-mo before she stands up, is freeze-framed and soon covered by the End Credit crawl.

A blow to the film and the continuity of the visual effects occurred when effects whiz Wally Veevers (2001: A Space Odyssey, Excalibur, Superman) died early into filming, taking the knowledge of his planned effects to the grave, and there are some palpable inconsistencies between Molasar’s transformation from a gaseous cloud to a walking steak, and a red-eyed charcoal Hulk to a guy in a rubber suit.

The optical effects vary from adequate to hastily rotoscoped, and the gory evisceration of the watchmen resembles exploding clay molds. Mann reportedly stated the effects were never fully completed, and with so much time having elapsed since the film’s theatrical release, the ability to restore the film would undoubtedly be a massive, challenging endeavor.

But it’s not impossible – longer cuts of Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990) and Kevin Reynolds’ infamous dud Waterworld (1995) were eventually crafted by devoted fans & dedicated video label producers – and it’s not a futile goal, given the film’s substantive fan base, but whether even a partial reconstruction would work may be wishful thinking, given some serious glaring flaws.

Ian McKellen gives the worst performance of his career – his ‘You come and take this talisman!’ speech to Molasar is painfully funny – and Jurgen Prochnow is (unsurprisingly) wasted. Reconstructing TD’s score as envisioned by the group with cues selected by Mann and mixed for the film won’t be easy, since Mann – if he’s willing – will have to make creative choices that are in the best interest of the film, free from the editorial and colour timing revisionism that’s altered Thief.

John Box’s set designs, especially the Keep structure, are outstanding, and Alex Thompson’s cinematography celebrates Mann’s pink & purple phase. TD’s music still offers great atmosphere, and several melancholy cues temper the suddenness of scene jumps, such as Glaeken’s boat ride during sunrise – one of the band’s most haunting and exquisite compositions.

The recurring mournfulness of the score provides some emotional grounding to the jumbled structure, but few cues can salvage the final act unless there’s a full restoration of scenes, including the original ending. Also affected is Molasar’s massacre (and char-broiling) of the Nazis, of which audiences are only shown the smoldering results rather than the battle itself.

Via Vision’s Australian release does sport a decent transfer, but there is compression in the dimly lit scenes, and the print has visible dirt & marks. The lone 2.0 Dolby mix doesn’t hide the uneven dialogue levels between Prochnow and Byrne nor Glenn’s occasional mumbling.

TD’s score does have moments of scope and grungy bass, but it never sounds as crisp as it should; even the choral piece (adapted from Thomas Tallis’ Mass of Four Voices) that tracks Cusa’s unearthing of the talisman nor the weirdly effective version of Howard Blake’s Snowman theme (!) for the End Credits have sonic clarity.

If a Blu-ray is wanted (and it is, 37 years since The Keep’s release), the film needs to undergo a full-blown restoration that offers Theatrical and Director Cuts. In terms of extras, those archival goodies and new interviews to contextualize this career misstep already exist in Stewart Buck’s A World War II Fairytale: The Making of Michael Mann’s The Keep, a long-developed, soon-to-be-released documentary on one of the most misunderstood cult films of the 1980s.

Archived on YouTube (see link at end of review) is an episode of The Electric Theatre Show, a half-hour movie series produced by Northern Scotland’s Grampian Television, featuring a lengthy and highly informative interview with Mann during The Keep‘s principle photography. There’s some on-set footage of Mann directing Prochnow and Sheppard, but the bulk of the interview has Mann reflecting less on the film and more on his career steps from novice film student to short filmmaker, TV screenwriter & director, and the exciting challenges of big screen moviemaking.

There’s no doubt The Keep was conceived with a desire and plan to take a supernatural thriller and filter it through the director’s post-Thief / pre-Miami Vice stylistic palette, but in its current state, it remains an alluring hint of an engrossing stylish shocker waiting for a rebirth.



© 2020 Mark R. Hasan







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