October 30th, 2015

Wedding day

31 Days of Halloween: The Keep

The walls of the Keep, we are told, are embedded with 136 nickel crosses. Nobody knows why built it, or why, but he largest stones are on the inside and the small ones are on the outer walls, which suggests that it's purpose is to contain something, rather than protect it.

These facts are discussed by W. Morgan Sheppard as Alexandru, the custodian of the keep, and by Capt. Klaus Woermann <Jürgen /Prochnow, a German officer in the second world war whose company has been posted here, very much against his wishes. The Keep is an ancient stone structure in the mountains of Romania, and Alexandru tells Woermann that he receives no direction or compensation, he simply does What Needs to Be Done.

During the night watch, two of the Germans discover a single cross made of pure silver, so they attempt to remove it, reasoning that the single silver cross may mark the hiding place of more treasure. A vacuum is opened, and they find themselves beset by invisible forces, and one of the soldiers literally loses his head (to what? We never see.). Both men die and no one is around to witness the event.

Berlin sends in more troops, because Nazis and horror go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Sturmbannführer Erich Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne, a ruthless, ambitious sociopath comes in and decides that the deaths are the work of the local communists. He threatens to execute the five townspeople for every German death at the Keep, but the mysterious deaths do not stop. A message appears on one of the walls in a language that no one can read, and one of the locals convinces the Germans to bring in the wheelchair-bound Professor Theodore Cuza (Ian McCellan, looking like he'd rather be appearing in a better movie), a Jewish historian who has dedicated a significant portion of his career to the study of the Keep, and who is being kept in a concentration camp. Cuza comes and translates the message as "I will be free" written in a 500-year-old language, but can shed no further light on the subject.

Cuza's daughter, Magda, is assaulted by two of the Germans, but her attackers are consumed--quite literally--by an entity which appears to be made of smoke and fire and stone. The entity is an immortal being called Molasar which needs Cuza's assistance to escape its prison, and as a show of good faith it restores some of the man's youth. A young man called Glaeken shows up, and actively urges Cuza to stop helping Molasar. Cuza is does not know who to trust, and Glaeken exhibits supernatural powers indicating that he is not who he claims to be.

The Keep is a little-seen movie from 1983, written and directed by Michael Mann, and based on the novel of the same title by F. Paul Wilson. I read the novel several years ago after trying unsuccessfully to find the movie, which was basically abandoned by Paramount while they were making it. The production was notoriously troubled, and the film was cut from 210 minutes to 96. The shortened cut received a limited release which made back about two thirds of the film's budget, and was then dumped unceremoniously onto a laser-disc and VHS release and never made it onto DVD. Now Amazon Prime offers that version free to members.

The Keep really is not a good movie, but it could have been because the book is pretty good. It was a bestseller and spawned five sequels in the era before self-published ebooks. It's this long, intricate, slow burn that takes a long time to reach a spectacular payoff, and it's never totally clear who is good and who is evil (well, other than the Nazis). Unfortunately, the 96-minute movie handles everything badly, and there are obviously missing scenes (consider that the foreplay which immediately precedes the explicit sex scene between Magda and Glaeken is their chaste and terse first meeting). This must be my third viewing, and I find that I remember very little of the film after it's over because it's disjointed and choppy, and the story doesn't flow logically. We can assume, I think, that it's because more than half of the film is missing.

I think that's the biggest problem, but F. Paul Wilson has expressed his disapproval of the film, and he may know things about the original version that I don't. Another issue is that The Keep was intended to be a masterpiece of special effects, and while I can see what they're going for, the unfortunate fact is that the effects designer, Wally Veevers (better known for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (during which we all shout, "Hey Wally, where's the Veev?" when his name appears onscreen)) died during the production with the effects substantially unfinished. The climax on the film was drastically reworked to remove Veevers' unfinished effects because nobody really new what his intentions were, and there was simply not enough time to design impressive new ones. Other effects were also scaled down or cheapened. Poor Molasar has to settle for merely looking weird instead of being truly terrifying.

So, there are two versions of the keep, and neither one is anywhere as good as the version we might have gotten, had Wally Veevers lived and Paramount not pulled the plug. I do like the soundtrack by Tangerine Dream which is substantially responsible for The Keep's cult following, but I have my doubts as to whether Wilson would have approved. I can see the potential this had to be a great horror film, but unrealized potential is not enough to recommend a film, even if it has a good soundtrack

Here's the trailer: