American director Michael Mann does a supernatural film with Nazis, and although with its flaws, it has amazing atmosphere, visuals and an incredible soundtrack by Tangerine Dream that make this one a cult favourite with a lot of fans, including myself.
The Keep, much like Liquid Sky, is one of those films that to me seems like it should have been one of my first entries in this Film Klub section that I started a number of years ago. It seems such an obvious selection as there’s many things about this film that ticks a lot of boxes and to anyone out there following Soft Riot, one would think that this film shares some common aesthetic similarities. So for the sake of having my own record of it, I’ve given it an entry here now, all these years later.
First off, it’s a hard film to find out about for reasons that I’ll get into later. I was made aware of The Keep at the end of the noughties during my time in London, through key friends of mine and through the rise of things like Tumblr etc. One would keep seeing images online of a red-eyed, grey-skinned muscular demon, or a shot of a man running toward you through the blackness from a doorway of light. Or even the poster and logo of the film itself, the words THE KEEP immortalised in an airbrushed construction of those letters, made to be giant slabs of shadowed stone that created an impression of the actual “keep”, the namesake of the film.
It was difficult to get your hands on it to watch as the only physical copies of it that existed were rare old original VHS versions of the film. Very few, if any, DVD re-issues of the film existed at the time. Again, I’ll get into this later. I ended up getting a digital copy of the film from a friend and gave it watch and the first time I watched it I knew it was something special.
Now for a bit of the story… The Keep takes place right in the middle of World War II, sometime after Operation Barbarossa, when the Nazis had moved into Romania. A unit of the Wehrmacht moves deep into the mountains and takes over a small rural village at Dinu Mountain Pass, a strategic decision to have more control over the area. The village is on one side of a massive chasm, and across that chasm is an ominous fortress built into the side of the mountain with mysterious origins. This unit, headed by Capt. Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), keeps the villagers under a close watch and use this fortress, “The Keep” as their base of operations. The fortress itself has an odd feeling to it, like the structure is meant to keep something in rather than keep invaders out. Curiousity gets the better of two soldiers in the unit as under the cover of night they attempt to steal a number of strange silver crosses that line the interior walls of the keep. They end up getting killed in a fantastical manner and in turn release the dark secret of this structure, a demonic being called Radu Molasar, which is the “red-eyed, grey-skinned muscular demon” that is shown in so many stills of the film that are out there in cyberspace.
With Molasar released and running rampant throughout the keep, many of the Wehrmacht unit start getting killed off and personnel from more senior units of the German army are brought in to deal with the problem, headed by a hot-headed, ruthless Sturmbannführer Erich Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne). Mysterious runes written amongst the walls prompt the desperate German units to bring in Jewish scholar Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter, played by Alberta Watson. As Cuza attempts to get a grip on understanding the workings behind the demon Molasar, a mysterious stranger (Scott Glenn) arrives after a long journey across many countries to fulfill an age old prophecy that brings the conflict with Molasar to a spectacular end.
Now, why haven’t you heard about this film? The main reason is that director Michael Mann basically disowned it. The Keep was a oddity in Mann’s repertoire, sandwiched between his stylish urban crime thriller, and debut Thief and then right before he broke into the big time with his popular 80s crime TV series Miami Vice and all of its pastel-coloured, sleek fashion and environs. The Keep was plagued by production problems and creative differences with the studio, Paramount Pictures. The film was subjected to costly re-shoots, and having to deal with the fact that the main special effects guru, Wally Veevers, died two weeks into the film’s production. This caused enormous problems because no-one knew where Veevers was going with his plan for the special effects so they had to cobble what they could to keep things moving along, cutting out a lot of the planned shoots to something a lot more practical.
On top of that, Mann’s first cut of the film was too long (210 minutes!) and was forcibly hacked down to a cut that exposed the film to glaring plot holes, bad “jumps” and editing issues. It was so much for Mann that he in effect disowned the film and refused to have the film re-issued, which is the main reason why it’s so hard to find. Having said that, since my initial viewings I’ve managed to stumble across the film one night on Britain’s Channel 4 late one night in a hotel room to my surprise. You can also find it on Netflix these days if you dig around.
The film is based on a book by F. Paul Wilson which came out a few years earlier, which I read a number of years after seeing the film. And, like many films based on a book, sometimes the translation of book to film is a bit of an awkward one. David Lynch’s Dune is a shining example, and shared a lot of the same woes as Mann’s The Keep did.
But in the end, The Keep is still a fantastic film, especially for those viewers that get a lot more out of a film than just being spoon-fed a logical plotline. Its cinematography and atmosphere are incredible with all of those icy blue lights, slate grey mountains (the film was actually mostly shot in Wales, near Blaenau Ffestiniog) and swirling fog that make for some other-worldly ambience. The acting, by cast who more or less became more famous in years after this film, is pretty good as well. Add to this a stunning, haunting synth-driven soundtrack by Tangerine Dream (and in my opinion, one of their best ever, up there with the one they did for Sorcerer) it makes for a slightly emotional experience when you watch it. At least for me, I guess that’s why it’s a favourite of mine. There’s a clip of most of their soundtrack in the Video section below.
In my head I always group this film in with some things going on in the world of underground music at the time I first saw the film, namely due to similar visuals and music aesthetics. There were a few taste-makers and labels such as Hippos In Tanks where a new crop of dark, cinema-inspired EBM-styled bands emerged. The main artists that come to mind are Gatekeeper and White Car, both on the Hippos In Tanks label. Elements of music from these bands were parallel to Tangerine Dream‘s work on the score of The Keep, as well as usage of strange, abstract, dark and grainy retro-styled imagery by a number of these bands in their album covers and promotional artwork. In fact, one could even spread a broader net over the whole darker side of the vaporwave genre to pull in music that may have been inspired by this film, or films like it from the same time period.
Over the years the film has attracted a strong fan base, despite its obscurity, and some of those fans being good friends of mine. Take for instance London-based electronic musician Mild Peril (aka Chris Gilbert), a DJ of a number of popular East London club nights specialising in italo, synth and EBM going into the 2010s. Mild Peril has worked under a number of guises, all in the general style of melodic, synth-driven cosmic electronic music. One of those “guises” was a splinter project called Molasar that released a whole suite of tracks, now in one Anthology, all based on The Keep which captures the mood of the film, and aspects of Tangerine Dream‘s soundtrack in Gilbert’s trademark style quite well.
I originally had the idea of grouping all three of Michael Mann’s 80s films (Thief, The Keep and Manhunter) into one combined piece of writing, threading them altogether but in the end I thought this film deserved to stand out on its own as it’s that important of a film to myself and many others. Check it out for yourself, especially now that there’s a few places you can find it in this digital age. Just don’t tell Michael Mann about it.
Note: There’s another article about The Keep that gets more into the details of the film’s troubled production which you can read here.
And finally, you can listen to Molasar‘s Anthology below: