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The Keep

December 3rd, 2010 by unkle lancifer · 19 Comments

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.

Tags: General Horror

19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 TaylorNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    I’m glad you mentioned that Ian McKellan is terrible in the movie, because when I got here and saw a write-up on The Keep my first thought was, “Oh, I can’t wait to leave a comment saying ‘You forgot to mention that Ian McKellan is terrible in this movie.'” I like him as much as anyone in more more recent stuff, but he’s Bumwad County Community Theater in The Keep. I wonder what happened there.

    I like the movie as a Tangerine Dream music video (see also: 1977’s Sorcerer), but that’s about it. I was wicked jazzed when I saw that the Netflix Instant version is widescreen…As rough-going as the story is, the photography makes me miss the 80s something fierce.

  • 2 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 1:02 pm


    I can hardly believe it’s the same Mckellan. I kept flashing back to a junior high production of “Our Town”

    I was reminded of “Sorcerer” while I watched THE KEEP but I thought I was just making the connection because of the trucks in the beginning of the movie. I totally forgot that Tangerine dream did the soundtrack for that too! That’s must have been what my brain was trying to tell me. Such a strange choice in a way. There are some scenes that just cry out for more traditional horror music jabs but it just goes right on being all ethereal. Weird effect.

    You’re so right that it feels like an eighties video too. Makes me want to re-watch Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback…

  • 3 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    Razorback trailer!

  • 4 TaylorNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    I saw Razorback for the first time about a year ago, and I had the hardest time explaining to my girlfriend that it a) is a Jaws rip-off about a giant killer pig, and b) is also really fricking cool.

    Sorcerer and The Keep have always been linked to each other in my mind both because of the Tangerine Dream connection and the fact that they both have only been available on DVD fullscreen, thus short-changing us on Dick Bush’s photography (he shot both). Netflix, if you’re reading this: Sorcerer next please?

  • 5 TaylorNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    Sorry, I didn’t mean to say that The Keep has even been released on DVD…Obviously no widescreen VHS either. I’ve put off buying the cheapo Sorcerer DVD until they give us the rest of the picture.

  • 6 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 1:58 pm


    I had to double check on this but I think Alex Thompson (Alien 3) was the director of photography on The Keep rather than Wolf? I do see the similarities though and YES we need some Sorcerer and Razorback in widescreen!

  • 7 jimdandytothefescueNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I haven’t seen The Keep since it was new on home video, but I clearly remember how good the novel was…and how disappointing the movie by comparison. I have been tempted periodically to watch it again with the hope of finding that it’s actually much better than I remember. Fortunately I have you to save me the trouble. Thanks.

  • 8 TaylorNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 2:17 pm

    Ah hell Unk, you’re right…I’m not sure where I got that Dick Bush had shot The Keep. Maybe because there are some bushes in it(?).

  • 9 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 2:26 pm


    No worries, I’m sure you’re way more up on your cinematographers than I am. My “knowledge” is stored on Imdb rather than in my brain and yes there was at least one bush in THE KEEP.

    Jimdandy, That book is amazing isn’t it? I’m feeling a hankering for delving into it again. Seems like an excellent winter read. If you’ve only seen the movie on VHS I gotta say it’s far superior in widescreen but yea, it’s always going to be missing something.

  • 10 Will E.No Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Yup, just watched this on Netflix Instant the other night, and aside from a tiny few moments, THE KEEP is a major bomb. I did like the shock of the one young Nazi pulling his poor buddy’s remains out of the hole in the wall, as well as the long shot of the enormous space inside the keep. And it reminded me of SORCERER as well… but that movie I liked plenty.

  • 11 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    Will E.,

    The deaths of the first two soldiers is done really well. You almost feel like you’re in ALIEN territory at that point. It’s so other worldly. It’s crazy how things fall apart. I think it’s kind of interesting to compare this one to ALIEN which I do think it took some inspiration from visually. If you watch ALIEN now there is never a wasted moment and the way the creature is shown and not shown is just masterful. I have a feeling Mann just had no idea how to handle the effects at all. Do we even need to see the demon dude (Molasar) that much?

    Speaking of Aliens I was also reminded a bit of Bava’s “Planet of the Vampires: during the showdown at the end.

    I forgot to mention also that there was a slightly longer TV edit with a more a slightly more satisfying ending…

  • 12 Father MerrinNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    “The Keep” also has the feel of a movie that had a lot cut out of it for the final print.

  • 13 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 7:34 pm

    Father Merrin,

    That is so true. It jumps around and the transitions make zero sense. I think there is even an image in the beginning (a soldier’s face embedded in a wall) that takes place near the end?

    I would be demanding for a director’s cut at this point but I’m not sure if that could fix Ian’s performance. Still, it couldn’t hurt to see the story better realized.

  • 14 jamisingsNo Gravatar // Dec 3, 2010 at 10:30 pm

    I didn’t even know there was a movie. I read the book and a couple of the sequels. I think the 3rd book had the part that freaked me out the most – where the ex-priest goes to check on his recently married friend – a fat blonde woman – only to find the man she married is the embodiment of evil and he had stolen her soul while having sex with her.

  • 15 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Dec 4, 2010 at 3:36 am

    Here is another deleted scene from the film…a dream sequence….

  • 16 stevil1981No Gravatar // Dec 4, 2010 at 7:51 am

    I had the same disappointed feeling after watching The Keep. I kept expecting it to pick up the pace and no matter how many cool monsters and visually stunning set pieces there were, it just didn’t happen. Spot on with the music though, that piece from Sorcerer plays at on point in The Warriors video game and always gets me pumped up for action.

  • 17 knobgobblerNo Gravatar // Dec 4, 2010 at 11:30 pm

    I just watched ‘The Keep’ again for the first time since I was a kid… back then I was mostly disappointed that the monster wasn’t more… monstery.
    This time I liked the monster OK but hated the soundtrack and the disco lighting. Ian McKellen didn’t bug me near as much as Scott Glenn and the girl.
    Remaking this with CGI seems like it would just lead to unnecessary excess of a different sort. Really, I think the story needs less, not more… do it like an old Val Lewton movie… all shadows and innuendo… keep the monster off screen… just whispers and the horror on the face of its victims.

  • 18 Chuckles72No Gravatar // Dec 5, 2010 at 12:33 am

    Ah… The Keep.

    For me, the essence of the mystique of this film appears in the scene where our nazi interlopers first dislodge not one, but two silver “Thor’s Hammer” style crosses from the inner walls, and then we get that awesome pan down into the core of the mountain where there is some weirdo ancient monument from which our bad guy emerges. Made a HUGE impression on me as a kid – just gigantic. Honestly I can’t remeber too much else other than some nazis running in slo-mo.

  • 19 unkle lanciferNo Gravatar // Dec 5, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    From the Kindertrauma mailbox, Thanks Craig!


    Oh, how thrilled I was to see mention of THE KEEP. I have been a fan of it since I first saw it in a cinema back upon its initial release.

    I worked a rep house in the mid 80s, and the owner was a big fan of Michael Mann’s THIEF. So when I went all hogwild over THE KEEP, he booked it as well. I even got him to let us have a private screening before-hours so all the employees could invite their friends so we could have a little party of sorts!

    I had to “keep” running up to the booth though —- we ran reel-to-reel, so every 15-20 minutes someone (me!) had to do the changeover and thread the upcoming reel. Oddly, it was fun to do.

    You may be saying, “Dude, we have a comments section for this”, and yes you do. But I wanted to share this with you as well, and I didn’t want you to think I was spamming: I currently have an original press kit for THE KEEP up for auction on eBay!

    Press Kit : Michael Mann THE KEEP

    It’s killing me to part with it, but the wife and I had to renegotiate closet space, and my three boxes of press kits have to go. :`-(

    I took a photo for the auction of a couple of the stills, but did not feature all of them.

    I don’t have a scanner, but would you like me to snap photos of all the stills in the kit for your site? Do you think people would be interested? Please let me know if would — it would be a thrill to share “The Keep” all over again, similar to before.

    Thanks for your site. It, of course, rocks. But you knew that already!


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