Exploring what could have been for Michael Mann’s uniquely flawed horror adaptation
There are few films I want to love more than The Keep. A horror set during the Second World War where German soldiers find themselves up against a terrible, terrifying force of power, directed by Michael Mann on top stylistic form, scored by Tangerine Dream, boasting a terrific cast, based on a tremendous novel… it sounds amazing, right? Yet The Keep always leaves me wanting. Every time. Then again, I always come back to it. Every time. It has a spell. A power. And it fascinates me. So here I go again.
In 1981, F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep was published. Set during World War II in 1941, German Wehrmacht captain Klaus Woermann, disillusioned by how the Nazis have corrupted his once cherished army and country, is sent off out of the way to oversee the assembly of a watch post at a remote keep at the (fictional) Dinu Pass in the Carpathian Alps of Romania. The keep is a mysterious place, decorated wall to wall in strange, cross-like shapes, attended to for centuries by a family of villagers who are paid, generation after generation, to ensure the building is left alone. Yet two of the soldiers, excited at the possibility that the keep is home to undreamed-of-treasures, attempt to break through its walls, and in doing so, unleash a long-dormant force of evil which kills them both immediately, and which then proceeds to pick off more soldiers ― very gruesomely ― over the coming days. A desperate Woermann then telegrams his superiors with the chilling message ‘something is killing my men’.
Cue the arrival of despicable, sadistic Sturmbannführer Erich Kaempferr, a monstrous Nazi who is itching to put Woermann in his place, deal with the problem post-haste and then move on to the construction of a new death camp in Romania. Yet when the mysteries of the keep prove unsolvable, the Germans resort to bringing Prof. Theodore Cuza, a Jewish scholar who may be able to translate the ancient tomes found in the keep and work out a way to stop the killings. Cuza, desperately ill, prematurely aged and unable to walk, has with him his daughter and carer Magda, who becomes the focus of unwanted, ugly attention from both Woermann and Kaempferr’s soldiers. She’s sent out of the way to the village inn, where she meets a mysterious stranger named Glenn who has become inexorably summoned to the keep and with whom she begins a tentative but eventually overwhelming sexual and romantic relationship.
Meanwhile, the force within the keep ― an ancient entity known as Molasar ― makes itself present to Cuza, manipulating his hatred of the Nazis and convincing him that he is actually a force for good and justice. By revitalising his physical state and promising him that he will wipe out Hitler and all his cronies, Cuza becomes Molasar’s willing slave and promises to free him from the keep. But Molasar lies ― yes, he will destroy Hitler, but he will also destroy pretty much everyone else on the planet too, feeding from humanity’s misery and sin and laying waste to all he oversees. And it seems like only Glenn ― whose real name is Glaeken, and who is as centuries-old as Molasar ― can stop him.
What’s excellent about Wilson’s novel, aside from its perfect pacing, scary atmosphere and spectacular eruptions of violence, is its juggling of moralities ― one of its most sympathetic characters, Woermann, is on the side of the Nazis (though not in spirit) and his disillusionment at what has happened to the country and army he loved so much makes for a fascinating counterpoint to the outright evil and cruel nature of Kaempferr, surely one of the most unsung examples of an obnoxious, wicked and pathetic antagonist in genre fiction, a man who has official superiority over Woermann but knows deep inside who is the real soldier and who is just a coward ― after all, Woermann’s the only person on Earth to have witnessed Kaempferr fleeing the scene of a battle. If only Woermann were to die amidst all this chaos in the keep…
There’s an engrossing exploration of doing terrible things and taking terrible risks for a potential greater good in Wilson’s novel. The character of Prof. Cuza best exemplifies this: physically infirm but mentally yearning to live, he sees in Molasar a chance to destroy the Nazis and put an end to any concept of a new concentration camp in Romania, even if he ends up putting the life of his daughter (and himself) at risk. To him, it’s a sacrifice worth making. Glaeken is then revealed to have spared Molasar’s life ― imprisoning him in the keep when he could have killed him, because by murdering him, his own life would then cease to have any meaning. Magda knows all too well what is at stake in the keep, but her newly-unleashed desire for Glaeken leads her, for the first time in her life, to act in her own interests, and not for her rapidly changing father, whose obsession with Molasar has changed him as much emotionally as it has physically.
It all leads to a terrific finale, with the entirety of the soldiers (Woermann and Kaempferr included) not only all murdered but now terrifyingly reanimated as zombies, while Glaeken confronts Molasar and pursues him through a rapidly destructing keep, with the pressure on for the keep’s evil presence not to spread any further than it already has. Its already turned the villagers into crazed murderers, and the rest of the world looks set to follow. This is all utterly gripping stuff, especially Glaeken and Molasar’s battle, which is so spectacularly written that you can just imagine how amazing it could have been on film. Basic fact: fights that take place with throughout collapsing structures in 80s films, be they castles (Highlander) or even planets (Star Trek III: The Search for Spock), are almost always superb.
So what of the film?
Well, first of all, thanks for your patience: if I’ve been focusing on the novel a lot in this piece, it’s feels utterly necessary because it helps to fill in the absolutely massive gaps its cinematic adaptation suffers badly from. Yet it didn’t need to be this way. Aside from the potentially tricky balancing act of switching narrative point-of-view between various characters (Woermann, Kaempferr, Professor Cuza, Magda and Glenn/Glaeken), The Keep is so vividly written that adapting it to the screen should have been a doddle. The story is so visceral that all it needed was a big budget, a director with the vision to bring it all to life and a cast that could deliver the goods. Maybe even a musical composer (or composers) who could add that extra, untouchable spark.
Hey, we got ALL of those things, and we got more. We also got less.
The Keep is a real anomaly in the canon of films directed by Michael Mann in that it’s the only horror he’s ever made. He mostly exists within the crime thriller genre with films like Thief, Heat, Manhunter, Collateral, Miami Vice (the TV series, plus its very different big-screen spin-off decades later) providing sleek, modern, moody and atmospheric entertainment. Odds are fans of the Mann will find much to like across all of these films, even non-crime works like The Last of the Mohicans and Ali… except maybe this one. It’s still unmistakably a Michael Mann work – the use of atmospherics, the electronic score, the meditative, moody style, but fans yet to discover this might be surprised with the presence of Nazis, demons, mysticism, scares, sex and far-out imagery.
One thing’s for sure: its opening twenty-or-so minutes are absolutely flawless. We begin with the sound of rumbling thunder. Then we fade into the utterly remarkable opening shot, which begins way, way, way up in the clouds before slowly moving down, down and down… and even further down, until we reach forests and finally the road where the Wehrmacht are driving their way towards the Keep. Accompanying this is Tangerine Dream’s driving, magnificently eerie score. TD were one of the major players in the German ‘Krautrock’ movement in the seventies alongside Can, Kraftwerk, Neu! and Cluster, their heavily electronic, pulsating, epic instrumentals sounding like they belonged on derelict space stations or the stargate at the end of 2001. By the end of the decade their sound was growing more melodic, and they had also branched into the world of soundtracks with William Friedkin’s Sorcerer in 1977. By the time of The Keep, they settling very nicely in their new phase as big-screen composers – and this film has some of their best cinematic compositions.
The keep itself and the surrounding village, are beautifully visualised. There’s a comfortable yet unnerving sense of claustrophobia, whilst the cloudy skies above promise danger to come. There’s an unearthly sense of dread. Jürgen Prochnow, the lead in Das Boot, is a perfect casting choice as Woermann – full of presence and authority, and strangely sympathetic (it’s all in the sad, tired eyes). He’s warned by the caretakers of the keep to stay away, to not set up base, to not stay overnight, but the patrol do stay, those two idiot soldiers try to steal silver from the keep and all fucking hell breaks loose. This particular sequence is one of the undoubted highlights of the film, and of any film ever, to be honest. It’s amazing.
The two soldiers have attempted to prise what looks like the one silver cross from the wall (the others are made of nickel), only to end up removing an entire block of stone in the process. Inside there’s another silver cross in the darkness. One of them crawls in the small space and tries to get at the second cross, securely tied to a rope by his partner, but suddenly the cross retreats rapidly far, far into the distance, and the sheer force of energy produced takes the soldier along with it. Only the efforts of his comrade stops him from going all the way through the other side of the darkness and into oblivion. He’s about to be pulled back into safety, until he looks out and tries to take in his surroundings, as do we.
So begins one of the greatest shots in cinema. We start with the soldier looking out towards us, his torch illuminating next to nothing and then we move back, back, back… further back, further back, until we come to realise the inside of this keep must go on forever. All the while, the sight of the soldier’s torch rapidly diminishes until all we can see is a little dot at the top of the screen… meanwhile, we’ve arrived at some spooky ruins, where a magic light appears out of nowhere and heads up, right towards the tunnel, towards the dot… before consuming it.
We then cut to the other soldier, who realises something horrendous is happening at the other end of the rope. He then starts to pull it back with more ease, but the look on his face says everything. What comes out of this makeshift entrance to nowhere is not going to be pleasant. And indeed it isn’t. We’re talking the top third of the soldier completely gone, torn off! A vapour, an energy source… retreats from the dead soldier’s body and back into the darkness, and then walls of the keep start closing in. Before he’s crushed, the surviving soldier runs free, only to be met with the full force of the returning energy, which blows him to the other end of the courtyard with such strength it kills him on impact when he hits the wall. The other soldiers are alerted. There’s gunfire. There’s chaos.
It has begun.
So far, so great, so very, very great ― even the next scene, where we cut to Glaeken awakening and are thrown into a totally different narrative point-of-view, is mesmerising given we’re instantly drawn into this stranger’s world as he packs his belongings and sets sail across the Greek sea towards Romania, gorgeous sunrise reflecting on the ocean water. Anyone who hasn’t read the book might be thinking ‘what the…’ but will likely assume that this’ll be explained in due time. And it is explained, I guess – this guy’s destined to fight the evil within the keep, right?
We cut back to the keep, and it seems that days have passed and another three soldiers have fallen victim to the mysterious power within and that Woermann has requested that he and his men be relocated. This is when the film starts to fall apart. We keep getting told about things that have happened off-screen, stuff we’re missing and it all ends up giving a fatal sense of remove. Instead of being shown, we’re being told. The mood starts to dissipate and become more sporadic, the spell starts to lose its power. This is a film that began with five whole minutes of atmospheric scene-setting without any dialogue whatsoever. Time was being taken, unfurling beautifully. One would have hoped this approach would have lasted the whole of the film, but what we have here is an end product that can be generously described as scattershot.
Much of this is to do with the fact that, originally, The Keep was three and a half hours long before it was cut pre-release. Paramount demanded a two-hour cut and, dissatisfied with that, went on to edit even more. The released version is just over 90 minutes. That’s TWO HOURS missing. No wonder the version available doesn’t make any bloody sense ― it doesn’t so much dispense with subplots as it does trim them all, leading to a lot of tantalising starting points that aren’t developed in any meaningful or satisfying way. One example is the relationship between Glaeken and Eva (formerly Magda in the novel), which on the page is slowly, carefully developed until by the time they make love, it’s an extraordinary release. For Magda/Eva, who has devoted her life to taking care of her father and has had no time for romantic or sexual attention, her attraction to Glaeken becomes at once new, terrifying and ultimately ecstatic. For Glaeken, his existence over centuries has alienated him from others, and his need to concentrate on the impending battle means that he knows he should deny his feelings for Eva. But he doesn’t.
Any of the above emotional conflict is merely paid hollow lip service in the film, and certainly none of it is expressed before the two of them have sex, which in screen time occurs less than five minutes before they first meet. Who knows if more was shot that would have made their sexual union more meaningful or emotional, because in the film it’s simply bizarre. There is a possibility that Eva’s instant attraction to Glaeken is due to some kind of supernatural power he has over her (see how he seems to be able to send her to sleep with a simple voice command), which would explain something, but again, it’s not developed. Saying that, this is one of the film’s more effective compromises, because the sheer unexpectedness of this sex scene gives the film a kind of dreamlike, anything-goes feel. Add the intoxicating atmosphere of the scene itself, filmed in beautiful sunset and scored by one of Tangerine Dream’s more eerily beautiful themes and it’s moments like this, that, despite its flaws, The Keep becomes transcendental.
Other underdeveloped subplots include the keep’s malevolent influence on the surrounding village and its residents. In the book a formerly content married couples turn on each other and become homicidal, erstwhile kindly landlords become cruel and unfeeling and even the local wildlife start to perish. Here we get the character of the village priest (a character not in the book, played here by Thief‘s Robert Prosky) who turns on Cuza for a brief moment and then retreats to his church where he seems to have killed an animal. And that’s it. So what was that about? In fact, it’s really not clear to tell what the hell’s going on, or why we should care. Unlike his control over all around him, Molasar starts to lose his grip on the viewer. There’s talk of evil, but little depiction of it. We don’t see enough. We don’t feel enough. There’s no emotional impact. So many of the novel’s themes, conflicts, dilemmas and tensions are glossed over in a rush to get to the end credits. So many great characters are left underdeveloped, which is all the more frustrating given the fine cast.
Despite Prochnow’s efforts, Woermann is pretty much abandoned as an active character after the first act. Gabriel Byrne’s supremely loathsome Kaempferr may threaten to steal the show with his ghastly villainy and zero redeeming features, but one of the strengths of the book was that we were forced to, somewhat uncomfortably, share his point-of-view, which exposed the reader to a fascinating depiction of wickedness that contrasted with the more elemental, ancient evil of Molasar. Here Kaempferr’s just a bad guy who gets a few boo-hiss scenes. He and Woermann have a few intense arguments, but the long-gestating hatred the two have for each other isn’t effectively established. Scott Glenn plays Glaeken and does it entirely earnestly, dead-eyed and mysterious, but he’s merely a remote cipher for good in this film. None of his internal conflicts are explored in any meaningful way. Similarly, Alberta Watson gives Eva the right air of vulnerability and quiet strength, but we never really get to know her character. Poor Ian McKellen throws himself into the role of Cuza with increasing passion, but his motivations seemed to have been compromised in the editing suite. Then there’s Molasar ― a deviously manipulative, clever and mysterious monster in the book, here he is reduced to a very tall man in a spectacular but occasionally unconvincing costume with glowing eyes and mouth. How can one properly appreciate a film that has been so utterly fucked with like this? It’s frustrating.
The ending, such a thriller in the book, is reduced to an underwhelming light-show on-screen, an attempt at grandeur which feels unwarranted and which might have looked halfway-cool back in 1983, but now looks dated. I mean, we don’t even get any of the Nazi zombies the book gave us! Adding salt to the wound caused by an already troubled filming process, Paramount refused to finance Mann’s concept for an all-out finale, which didn’t help matters, nor did the death of visual effects designer Wally Veevers during filming, with Mann having to take over the completion of the remaining FX shots. Additionally, the film was meant to properly end with an extra scene of Eva finding her way through the keep to Glaeken’s dead body which is then revived at her touch, and also, free from the curse of eternal life and all set to live a mortal existence with Eva, which is closer in line with the novel. However, in the theatrical and pretty much all available versions, the film freeze-frames on Eva before she begins her descent into the keep. This was the ending that was added to some network television screenings (it can be seen online), which I’m all for as more Keep is a good thing, but it nevertheless still doesn’t have the same kind of emotional or cathartic punch it should have because when all’s said and done, the rest of the film still sells their relationship short. No wonder Wilson was appalled by his book’s treatment when he watched this adaptation. He considered it to be ‘visually intriguing, but otherwise utterly incomprehensible’. The thing is, he was watching an incomplete adaptation. Who knows what he’d think of the full cut, if it ever gets released. To right what was once wronged, Wilson ended up co-creating a comic book version which he regards as the definitive visual adaptation of his novel. Also, to get his own back, he published a short story about a writer who puts a voodoo curse on a director who he feels adapted his work badly. Subtle.
Yet there is still much to admire here. Mann’s amazing visual style. The otherworldly music. The committed performances. Those first twenty minutes. Its scenes of violence, though strangely bloodless despite the body count (honestly, Raiders of the Lost Ark has nastier afterlife-Vs-Nazi violence lashed out, and that’s a PG compared to this ’18’ film) have a surreal quality to them, especially when one particularly foul soldier who attempts to rape Eva is subjected to an awesome exploding head. The all too brief visions of the charred corpses of the patrol are seriously unsettling and nightmarish. Then there’s just that air of strangeness that pervades so many of its frames. For a major-studio film, The Keep is bloody weird. And mysterious.
One of the reasons for The Keep‘s air of mystery has been its relative obscurity. There are various reasons for this: Mann has been on record of not being happy with the film and there are rumours that he withheld a wide release of it on home video formats. Despite receiving initial cinematic and home video releases, the film soon slipped away to the point when, in 1994, it warranted inclusion in BBC2’s Lost and Found season of obscure, hidden gems that had never been screened on UK television. After that, the film continued to languish. HMV secured an exclusive VHS release in the late nineties, albeit in a pan-and-scan version. This is how I first got to see it, and it left me dazzled and underwhelmed back then too. UK channel Film Four would show it in widescreen a few times, but apart from that, it continued to remain obscure, until it started to seep onto streaming platforms. Nevertheless, its absence on any kind of official, modern-day format was proving to infuriate fans, who had to resort to obtaining bootlegged copies. It’s only now, in 2020, that the film has ― finally ― been made officially available in modern-day disc format, but even here it’s something of a mixed blessing, as it’s only available on DVD, not Blu-ray. Still, this is a step in the right direction. It’s not just the film itself that’s a rarity ― Tangerine Dream’s score has had the most erratic history of all their soundtracks. The complete soundtrack as heard in the film still hasn’t been officially released.
Overall, The Keep as it currently exists, for all its amazing moments and unforgettable visuals, is a hopeless compromise of the book. Honestly, read the novel, and think what the film could have been. A making-of documentary, due out later this year, may shed some more light and hopefully lead the way to greater demand for that complete director’s cut, because there is a truly, truly great film struggling, like Molasar, to break free. Wouldn’t that be something?