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.


Anonymous said...

A typically brilliant (by Mr. Peel) piece on a deeply problematic film. Even the staunchest Michael Mann fan must always consider THE KEEP with an asterisk (as in "*What the hell is this movie doing in his filmography?!"). I think even the estimable F.X. Feeney would agree (as would, probably, Michael Mann himself!).

Still, the film looked great at the New Beverly, and god bless 'em for showing it so myself, Mr. Peel, and our buddy Davey could enjoy it, (glorious) warts and all!


Scott Bradley

Unknown said...

Being a huge fan of Mann's films even this one baffles me. I can see what he was trying to do but it is something of an incoherent mess. A great looking mess, but one nonetheless.

Interestingly, Mann's intention was to make a fairy tale movie for adults by way of F. Paul Wilson's novel. Another source of inspiration was Another primary influence on the film was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which posits the theory that fairy tales were complex morality fables.

Not to mention, the production was a troubled one with grueling 16-18 hour days in cold, rainy weather. Mann demanded make-up effects be changed three times in one week. Eight crew members suffered nervous breakdowns as a result of the film’s demanding schedule. Six weeks into filming, Mann also changed the color of Molasar’s final costume which meant some scenes had to be re-shot.

And so on. So it was far from an easy shoot and the final results certain demonstrate that. But hey, THE KEEP's failure did lead Mann back to familiar turf and one of his strongest films - MANHUNTER.

Great article as always. I sure hope that Mann revisits it on DVD some day, preferably with his original cut.

Anonymous said...

Glad you reported on this screening as I regretfully missed it. I've seen THE KEEP well over 50 times - only twice in theaters. Though after a few viewings the story is clearer, there's still so much more to take in time after time. My advice for first time viewers is to experience it like a dream, as key characters are often found waking from their slumber. Figure it out when you wake. It's a thing of beauty. No other film like it!

Anonymous said...

As I've said before, I appreciate reading what feels like the blog for the public relations director of the New Beverly. You can comment on their screenings and never run out of fascinating material to write about.

The Keep is the only film Michael Mann has ever had anything to do with that I've never seen, in part due to the reaction. I wish I had known about this screening ahead of time.

How about putting a New Beverly schedule on your sidebar somewhere? This would also hype up the articles that were coming soon on your blog.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Thanks for what you had to say about my thoughts as well as what you wrote when you signed my copy of the book. It means a lot coming from you.


That's very interesting, I didn't know all that. Based on the film, I could believe that it was a troubled shoot. Maybe sometimes an artist such as Mann needs to make something wildly apart from his comfort zone to best discover the type of film he should be making. Thanks as always.

Captain Terrific--

Wow, fifty times? It certainly does seem like the sort of film which would inspire devotion. It is like a dream. I haven't figured it out yet, but there is always the possiblility that I'll see it again at some point in the future. And while I'm sure I'll be able to follow it better, I could believe that it would still feel like I'm seeing it for the first time.


I swear I don't work for the New Beverly. It's just worked out that over the past year or so I've wound up going there a surprising amount. And looking at their schedule, I just might be there again in a few days.

Guillaume said...

You're so lucky to have seen this film on the big screen!!

Frankly,it is Mann's most unusual and non "mainstream" movie!

I love the film's dreamy mood,the great locations,the wonderful Scope cinematography by Alex Thomson,the famous Tangerine Dream soundtrack and of course Mann's stylish direction.

Don't you think that the opening scene,the haunting silver cross removal scene and the first "cloudy" appearance of the evil Molasar are wonderful set-pieces??

A flawed but fascinating movie,one of the most ambitious horror movies made in the 80's.

Here's a great site made by a french fan of the film,Stéphane Piter:

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Thanks, Guillaume. It truly is an unusual film and I still don't quite know what to make of it. at the very least, some of the sequences you mentioned are indeed visually stunning. If I get another chance to see a print one of these days I may have to do it.

Anonymous said...

I just paid a distressing amount of money for a set of lobby cards for this movie. As the payment has already gone through and the fellow who sold them to me is a really nice English guy, I can only ask myself - WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING? (Answer: I wanted that freaking picture of Scott Glenn and Alberta Watson holding hands, hanging on my wall - thanks, Mr. Peel, for indirectly ushering in the latest overdraft fee from WaMu! ;-)

Yer pal,


PS - Seriously...WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING? It's not like it was a set of MANHUNTER lobby cards!!!!

le0pard13 said...

This is one Michael Mann film that is in dire need of a Director's Cut release on disc (SD or BD - which would stunning in Hi-Def). A Criterion Collection disc is probably too much to hope for. I use to own the VHS for this, but the only time I saw this on the big screen is what remains most vivid.

Mann's adaptation of the novel (which I've read) veers dramatically away from the source, especially how he changes its ending. But, it's a spectacular train wreck (especially with the info that blogger J.D. provided). And, I agree that this film was more suited for Ridley Scott than the emerging Mann. But there it is.

It's great that you caught this on a theatre screen, but a midnight showing is not optimum. I sincerely hope New Beverly Cinema brings it back (and at an earlier hour). I would be so there for that. Thanks for the wonderful take on this rarely seen gem, Mr. Peel.

Anonymous said...

Why the hell wont Michael Mann release a directors cut of this movie? I have come to love the film over the years. You see Ive forgiven its flaws, because, I understand what Mann was trying to do.The core of the story is there, well,almost there, but through repeated viewings I have been able to fill in the blanks, so to speak. The films worst fault is the editing. If anyone who reads this ever gets an opportunity to speak to Michael Mann, please ask him if the excised footage from his original cut still exists.If I ever met him,itd be the first thing Id ask him. I really would love to see the full film. I have heard that two or three weeks of filming was cancelled and the money ran out to finish the film properly despite the fact that there are actually two seperate endings in existence, one being an extended Duel scene on the roof of the keep, which I would really love to see. But, there has got to be some sort of fuller version in existence somewhere in a Paramount vault.As a matter of fact I know there is, because the first time I saw the film on vhs, which was when it first hit vhs after being in the cinema there were scenes in it that werent in later vhs re-releases of the film, such as a scene of dialog between Molosar and Glaeken just before their "duel" at the end of the film. In the version I saw, years ago, the two appear in the same frame for the first time in the movie and molosar points over Glaekens shoulder back at Eva(this scene is when the two face off, just after the scene where Glaeken activates his staff),he tells Glaeken he can sense the woman off him or around him or something to that effect. In the version most widely available today, if you look closely you can see this sequence begin when Molosar points at Eva and Glaeken turns to look back over his shoulder at her. Molosar attempts to dissuade Glaeken from confrontation, reminding Glaeken of his affections for Eva and of the fact that both of them will be destroyed should one of them kill the other, which is something Glaeken hints at earlier in the film when he tells Eva "when he goes, I go!". This scene of dialog is totally missing out of the version most widely available today, although if you look closely you can still see Molosar points to Eva and Glaeken turns to look at her for a moment, but the meaning is totally of this is completely lost and results in another WTF? moment, in a long line of many throughout the film.