The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Keep

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at THE KEEP!

THE STORY: Nazi storm troopers making their way through Romania, occupy an ancient castle which houses priceless silver crosses. When greedy soldiers try to steal them, they unwittingly unleash an ancient evil, that only a Jewish professor (Ian McKellen), newly released from a concentration camp, truly understands. Meanwhile, his daughter falls in love with an enigmatic stranger (Scott Glenn), with a bizarre tie to the creature.

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne & Jurgen Prochnow. Written and directed by Michael Mann.

THE HISTORY: Whenever Michael Mann’s filmography is discussed, THE KEEP is usually left out of the conversation. An oddball one-off, it’s his sole dip into genre, being an adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s novel. It was his follow-up to THIEF, but it had a tortured production process that, to this day, Mann apparently has raw feelings about. Rumor has it, he’s blocked its DVD/Blu-ray release, although there are also rumblings that a legal battle around Tangerine Dream’s score may also be responsible.

Before Michael Mann had devised Miami Vice he directed The Keep and produced it and wrote it. He cast me as the heroine's father, a Romanian academic who gets caught up with Nazis and a monster trapped deep in the Keep. Ever-diligent, I had specially made my first trip to Bucharest and then had a couple of lessons from a dialect coach in London. So by the first day of filming, I was ready to sound and feel authentically Romanian. Just before my first take as Dr. Cuza, Michael said: "Drop the accent - make him more Chicago." Well, if the writer/producer/director makes a request, you jump to it. – Ian McKellenOfficial Website blog

Before anyone assumes this was a paycheck job for the auteur, bear in mind that he carries sole screenplay credit, and a horror/fantasy/history mash-up was nowhere near as commercial in 1983 as it is now. Mann seemed fully engaged by the project, as seen below in a rare interview from the set. It was in post-production that things apparently went haywire.

The big issue, it seems,was that the VFX artist, Wally Veevers, died before he could work on the effects-laden finale, which had been shot in a way that only he knew how to work with it, given his unusual method. When he died, the footage was left unusable. Somewhere around this time, everyone involved seemed to lose faith in the project. Rumor has it, Mann’s rough cut ran over three hours, but a terrific Den of Geek write-up, that compares the finished film to the screenplay, estimates his cut would have run closer to two hours.

As it is, the ninety-six-minute cut makes very little sense, and seems to have been assembled willy-nilly. The ending is especially compromised, as it ends on an abrupt downbeat note. A television cut of the film contains a longer, happy ending (that still seems unfinished), that probably would have worked better. However, to me, the worst of it is the sound design, which seems like it was never finished. Huge chunks of dialogue are almost inaudible. I remember watching a TV print of this movie and not understanding most of Scott Glenn’s dialogue, which I assume was never re-looped in post-production as it would have been otherwise. Newer editions of the film fix this somewhat, but you can still tell things aren’t “right”.

Given all this, it’s no surprise Paramount dumped the film into theaters without much fanfare, and it only eked out $3.6 million domestically. Since then, a cult has sprung up around this film, with a fan documentary currently in post-production.

WHY IT'S GREAT: THE KEEP is an inconsistent mess. Nevertheless, it has greatness in it. If you watch a handful of scenes on their own, without context, you’d think they were excerpted from a masterpiece. Cut-together, THE KEEP comes off like the most ambitious trailer ever made, but the finished product makes very little sense. Even still, it’s endlessly fascinating, and as I said, there’s greatness in it.

Probably the one thing about THE KEEP that everyone acknowledges is perfect is the score by Tangerine Dream. They worked with Mann on THIEF, and went over-and-above crafting an avant-garde score that hauntingly compliments the on-screen action. One notable scene is when two Nazis try to steal the silver crosses protecting the titular keep, using their signature piece, “Logos”. The cinematography by Alex Thompson, which is as heavy on neon blue light as “Miami Vice” would be on pastels, is also remarkable.

Likewise, THE KEEP has an amazing cast. Scott Glenn is a haunting, enigmatic hero, even if we learn next to nothing about his quest to keep the evil monster, Molasar, locked-up. His romance with Alberta Watson comes out of nowhere, but it adds a degree of romantic tragedy to the proceedings that elevate it. I wish this storyline had been more fleshed out. Fans will be surprised to see a young(ish) Ian McKellen as Watson’s crippled father, who's a Jewish historian that’s been plucked from a concentration camp, and his seduction by Molasar is the movie’s most affecting subplot. Gabriel Byrne also has an early role as a sadistic Gestapo officer, while Jurgen Prochnow plays a more sympathetic Nazi captain, in what seems to be a callback to his role in DAS BOOT.

BEST SCENE: Tangerine Dream’s score is highly anachronistic, but that’s part of what makes it so intriguing. The juxtaposition between their synths and the WW2 imagery is evocative, and I’ve always loved the opening scene where a Nazi division barrels through a Romanian village while Tangerine Dream’s score builds and builds. Along with THIEF, SORCERER, and RISKY BUSINESS, I think THE KEEP is some of their best work.

SEE IT: THE KEEP is still unavailable on DVD/Blu-ray, with the only version on disc an old bootleg of the laserdisc. Paramount announced a DVD release years ago but had to pull the plug, but luckily they made the SD master available on streaming sites. It shows-up on Tubi.TV, and Amazon Prime sometimes, but you can also buy it from iTunes and Google Play (it was only 10 bucks). No HD version is available yet, but the SD transfer is still better than the film has looked since 1983. A few niche labels have been trying to get the rights to this, but it seems like a complicated web, so for now, the SD version is the best we can hope for.

PARTING SHOT: THE KEEP is a seriously flawed film, but it’s a heck of an intriguing one. It’s certainly a must-see for Mann fans, in the same way, DUNE is essential for fans of David Lynch. While I’d love for Mann to revisit the movie at some point, that seems unlikely. It’s a fascinating artifact and a cool little cult flick.

Source: JoBlo.com



Latest Entertainment News Headlines