The Keep (1983)
By: Mr Intolerance on May 27, 2008  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Sir Ian McKellen, Jurgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Robert Prosky
Screenplay: Michael Mann
Country: USA
Year: 1983
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Based on an F. Paul Wilson story of the same name (and a bloody good one at that – although unfortunately the author ain't too happy about what happened to his baby), The Keep is a long forgotten horror classic that needs a re-release on DVD soon. I'm bloody-mindedly reviewing the VHS version in the hope that someone will take notice and know that there's a fan-base for this film out there.

A troop of war-weary Wehrmacht soldiers (led by the totally fucking amazing Jurgen Prochnow in a star turn as Hauptmann Klaus Woermann) "fresh" from the Russian front roll into an Eastern European town (in the Carpathian Alps, no less), take up residence in a castle and are ordered to stay there for the duration, Bad move, if unavoidable. There's something in the walls that ain't too kind to Nazis… Some stupid soldiers who can't keep their hands to themselves die, and then the SS turn up.

108 nickel plated crosses adorn the walls of the Castle – you'd think you'd pay attention when seeing such an unusual thing, but some people don't even know they've been born. Woermann knows well enough to leave the crosses alone (even if some of his troopers don't), but when Sturmbannfuhrer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne)'s gang of SS Einsatzkommando (they're the really evil dudes who were responsible for executing Jews and Communists on sight in the occupied territories) turn up, things get more than a little bit hairy. But given that they're a bunch of Nazi fuck-heads, it shouldn't be too much of a surprise when they start looting. Nor of course should we care what happens to them as retribution – but the splatter FX are quite nifty.

The Wehrmacht boys start getting killed in bloody, gruesome ways (the Woermann has already come to the unpleasant and uncomfortable conclusion that given its structure, the Keep wasn't meant to keep people out, but to keep something in – and we, as horror fans know what's going on), and so the Einsatzkommando roll in – denying the Wehrmacht's call for relocation. The SS, in true Nazi fashion, try to suppress what they believe is partisan rebellion by slaughtering the populace, but to no avail, obviously. This is where Woermann becomes the good cop (despite the fact he's an evil fascist – he gloats earlier to an offsider about Germany owning the world) to Kaempffer's bad cop. Actually, there's one point towards the end where the characters have a bit of a show down which is kind of like an "How To Act 101" lesson. Top notch stuff.

And Ian McKellen? He's the Jewish scholar (Dr Cuza) relocated from an extermination camp by Kaempffer to solve the puzzle of what's in the Castle, At first he's in league with the entity Molasar, then the relationship becomes much more ambiguous. His performance is as about as good you'd wish for, given the calibre of the actor we're discussing. Stellar.

I was a little non-plussed at the inclusion in the cast of Eva, Dr Cuza's daughter. She's not a love-interest per se in the traditional sense of the word, neither is she a femme fatale – she's just kind of there. A bit of a nothing character who serves as a plot device at two reasonably important points of the film, and that's really about it.

When Dr Cuza makes his metaphorical deal with the Devil, we start to have a new look at traditional ideas of good and evil; and the local parish priest Father Fonescu isn't doing much to change our views. I love a good "grey zone" in a film. Moral ambiguity is a beautiful thing.

The setting is bleak, bordering on miserable. A desolate rain-drenched wind-swept void, it's barren and life-less, and the Keep itself is practically a character, cold and lethal. As a venue for a cosmic struggle between good and evil, it's particularly fitting. The performances are all quite hard-boiled; Prochnow, McKellen and Byrne deserve special props for their work here – three world class actors at the top of their respective games – their performances drive this film. The camerawork also rates a mention here – alternating between oneiric and visceral, The Keep is a horror flick that never lets itself get bogged down in gore (although there's certainly enough on display), nor wallow too much in trying to create an atmosphere (and the tone here is almost palpable, and seemingly effortlessly created) – the mix is perfect.

I've got to say, the only weak link here is Scott Glenn's character, Gleken Trismegestus – kind of too reminiscent of David Carradine in Kung-Fu; he wanders about doing sporadic good – his performance is fine (if a bit of a walk-through), but it's not a well-fleshed out role in terms of script; chronically underwritten in fact – the novel did a better job of developing this character. He's curiously flat and emotionless, and somehow lacking  

Oh, and the ending is a little anti-climactic, too – again, the novel wins. All up, a strange, dream-like blood-splattered film that is going to polarise an audience, I think. It's impenetrable, verging on the incoherent, at times, but ultimately a highly rewarding watch.

If you haven't seen this, hunt it down immediately and revel in it. I can't believe it hasn't been released on DVD yet. Anchor Bay – what are you doing??!! This is an excellent, well-acted and directed film, like The Bunker; sparse, spare and tense, and driven wholly by the performances. If you can't dig on The Keep, then I hate you and I hope you die. A lost horror classic.
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