Monday, September 22, 2008
The Devil in The Keep
Saturday afternoon I was at a book signing for my friend Scott Bradley’s The Book of Lists: Horror which he co-authored with the delightful Amy Wallace. It’s a terrific piece of work focusing on the world of horror in film, literature, music and elsewhere. Among those offering contributions are the likes of Stephen King, Edgar Wright, Ray Bradbury, Tim Lucas, Ann Magnuson, Eli Roth, John Skipp and many others including the always lovely Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni, whose offering is the memorable “Ten Favorite Tragically Romantic Heroine Deaths in Opera”. Best of all, at least for me, I’m thanked in the acknowledgements. Anyway, as he was signing my copy Scott asked me if I was going to the midnight show of Michael Mann’s THE KEEP at the New Beverly that night. I told him I probably would be there and he excitedly asked, “When’s the last time you had a chance to see a print of THE KEEP?” To which I jokingly responded, “When’s the last time anyone asked about seeing a print of THE KEEP?” Bad timing on my part, since sitting next to Scott right that moment was writer F.X. Feeney, who authored the Taschen book on Michael Mann. True, not quite as bad as saying something negative about John Ford in front of Peter Bogdanovich, but it was enough to make it a comically awkward moment. Still, at least I didn’t say something bad about Michael Cimino. So I made it a point to head out to the New Beverly to see that midnight show of THE KEEP. And after spending a few days thinking about it, I’m still a little flummoxed.
I would attempt to offer a summary of the basic plot, but that would take too much of my depending on Wikipeida to pull that off successfully. Suffice it to say that THE KEEP, released in 1983, is set in Romania during World War II as the Germans attempt to take control of a small territory which contains a fortress referred to by those who watch over it as The Keep which possibly contains some form of demon within. Key players in this drama are German officers played by Gabriel Byrne and Jurgen Prochnow, a Jewish professor (Ian McKellan) and his daughter (SPANKING THE MONKEY’s Alberta Watson) as well as a mysterious stranger who has traveled far to enter The Keep played by Scott Glenn.
THE KEEP was not Michael Mann’s first film, but it very much feels like his own filmmaking style is in development and it interestingly stands apart from his more famous works (for the record, I love HEAT, THE INSIDER and COLLATERAL). To call it an unusual film doesn’t really do it justice and how it defies what you would expect from either a World War II film or a monster movie is only a small element of how it places itself apart from expectations. In some ways it comes off as experimental a strict genre piece as I’ve ever seen from a film released by a major Hollywood studio. Much of the visual style brings such silent masters as Murnau and Dreyer to mind and it’s safe to say that, for me, THE KEEP is the rare example in the modern age of filmmaking where I think I’d rather see it done as a silent film. I could even imagine a full coffee table book made up solely of images from it. That being said, it was in all honesty an extremely tough film for me to get a handle on due to its very oblique storytelling style. When Ian McKellan has to shout a long speech filled with exposition late in the film, it smacks as someone trying to plug a few holes in the story but I was relieved to at least get a moment where I could somehow get a handle on things. Written by Mann from the novel by F. Paul Wilson the striking style the director brings to the film combined with the incredible score by Tangerine Dream feels like his filmmaking eye is still being developed—it actually makes me think of the Ridley Scott-Hans Zimmer style which in some ways was also being developed at this time--and may simply have been miscasting for this type of film, but that doesn’t mean it’s a total failure. It just means it may have been a clash of storytelling sensibilities.
As I walked out of the New Beverly late that night, my first thought was a famous line Emmy winner Alec Baldwin had in David Mamet’s film STATE AND MAIN: “Well, that happened.” Frankly, a single viewing of THE KEEP doesn’t allow it to be any more penetrable than that. But after a night’s sleep I found myself wondering about what I’d seen and struck by the power of some of the imagery of the film. The Scope print screened by the New Beverly was in beautiful shape and the late hour for viewing it, while appropriate for the nature of the film, also had its drawbacks in terms of staying lucid through the running time. The film, which runs 96 minutes, has been discussed at length elsewhere on the Net in regards to cut scenes that may have helped clarify things, including several different extensions to the ending. It has also been speculated that the release version may not have been Michael Mann’s preferred cut. I feel like there’s no way I could offer a valid opinion on THE KEEP after this one viewing but unfortunately it’s not even on DVD to allow another look (an ancient pan and scan videocassette doesn’t seem very desirable). Still, I’m not sure even ten viewings will make me think the film completely works let alone fully understand what is going on, but there is something there both thematically and cinematically. It’s a film of worth, especially for anyone interested in Michael Mann and also in exploring the possibilities of films which rely solely on visuals to tell its story as opposed to the dialogue, surely a rarity in this day and age. For now, I’m just going to have to remain slightly baffled.