I always think I’m going to enjoy 1983’s THE KEEP a little more than I actually do. I have such fond memories of reading F. PAUL WILSON’s novel that I forget just how little of it actually properly made it to the screen. At least a good half of MICHAEL MANN’s adaptation thoroughly convinces the viewer that they are witnessing something outstanding but where it fails, it fails hard. I’m not sure how much can be blamed on MANN’s artistic tunnel vision and how much can be blamed on clumsy studio interference, but THE KEEP is a sometimes extraordinary looking achievement with massive, cavernous, jaw-droppy flaws. I’m rather in awe of the singular mood it achieves marrying gothic, fantasy and borderline sci-fi elements, but the story is not so much lost as blindfolded and assassinated and the acting swings from woodchip bland to absurdly clownish. I even had a sacrilegious thought during my recent viewing of THE KEEP, its rubber-suited monster made me wonder if CGI was such a bad thing after all.
The story finds a bunch of Nazis crashing a castle in Romania and setting up shop. The castle’s volunteer custodian warns that staying the night is not advised. The Nazis, being bossy, pooh-pooh all cautions and end up all kinds of dead. We come to find that the massive stone structure is in actuality a prison housing a supernatural force whose nature is unclear. To some it is a vampiric like soul-sucker, to others it may be a protective, vengeful Golem. A mysterious purple-eyed stranger (SCOTT GLENN) shows up who is linked to the entity and a showdown between the two climaxes the tale.
WILSON’s book has an expansive, mythic feel and speaks of the danger and temptation of fighting evil with evil that the film, for the most part, ignores. As intimidating as the castle’s dark inhabitant may be, there’s a seductive quality as well. You understand why someone might be compelled to swallow its untruths in a way absent from the film. I guess what’s glaringly AWOL is the human element; the Nazis though well cast (JURGEN PROCHNOW & a young GABRIEL BYRNE) are flat caricatures, GLENN is a zombie and the father daughter team of IAN McKELLEN and ALBERTA WATSON are routinely unconvincing. The film is almost good looking enough to get away with its crater heart but not so gorgeous as to get away with a midstream switch from backstroke to doggie paddle. Multiple viewings help, but a hole is a hole.
THE KEEP has developed cult devotion over the years and I don’t blame anyone for being utterly fascinated by this beautiful malfunction/gorgeous mistake. It’s currently available on NETFLIX streaming and I recommend anybody who digs highly stylized eighties flicks to give it at least a look-see in its proper ratio as it has never been released on DVD. As a visual journey it succeeds in wowing the eyes and the counterintuitive soundtrack from TANGARINE DREAM is occasionally spellbinding.
I find myself with a bit of a love/hate attraction here. There’s something so frustrating about watching this incredibly unique mood develop and then just dissipate before your eyes like smoke. Even though it loses steam and falls apart at the seams (and the monster often looks silly), it’s distinctive enough (good luck finding another movie that mashes up German expressionist imagery with XANADU lasers) to be worthwhile. Gee, you know I’m getting frustrated just writing about this movie. Is it OK to appreciate something that fumbles regularly and not be ironic at all about it? I kind of like this movie and it kind of doesn’t deserve it and that’s the best I can explain it. What I can’t explain at all is how MANN was able to milk such a wretched performance from IAN McKELLEN. That is between MIKE and IAN.
NOTE: There is a graphic novel written by F.PAUL WILSON and illustrated by MATTHEW DOW SMITH that visually captures the book without betraying the story and it’s a must read if you ask me. It’s crisp, clean and ends up as another reminder of what the film could have been. Rumor has it that there is a three hour plus director’s cut of this movie in the universe too and I don’t know if that is a good thing or a bad thing, but I do know that I would purchase and watch it the day it came out. I need help. You wanna talk films that deserve a remake? I’d put THE KEEP right on the top of my list.