TheKeepA really, really bad film and a virtual object lesson in how not to make a horror movie.  This big budget period piece was scripted and directed by the talented Michael Mann (MANHUNTER, HEAT), proving that sometimes it takes a great director to make a truly awful movie.

In making this, his second theatrical feature (following 1981’s THIEF), Michael Mann made a fundamental error: he condescended to his material.  The source for THE KEEP was a solid pulp novel by F. Paul Wilson, the first in a series that concluded with 1992’s NIGHT WORLD.  Wilson hasn’t been shy in criticizing Mann’s film, which was most likely the inspiration for Wilson’s 1988 story “Cuts,” in which a writer enacts a gruesome revenge on a greedy filmmaker who screwed up his novel in adapting it to the screen (in the story the protagonist chides the offending filmmaker for his “mass of pretensions” in place of a story and featuring a monster that “looked like the Incredible Hulk in drag”, which should resonate with anyone who’s seen THE KEEP).

Early on Mann claimed he was trying to play down the horror element in favor of an “adult fairy tale that is scary and romantic.”  Since his source material was very much in the horror vein, that statement should have raised a red flag with Paramount, who financed the film, which, unsurprisingly, was a critical and financial flop.  At least Mann seemed to learn his lesson, because with his next feature MANHUNTER, adapted from Thomas Harris’ RED DRAGON, he got it right.

Toward the end of WWII a number of Nazi soldiers find themselves stationed in a Romanian village dominated by the Keep, a vast stone enclosure.  Countless metal crosses are imbedded in the stone; an elderly caretaker sternly warns his guests not to mess with the crosses, but a couple greedy soldiers ignore his words and inadvertently unleash a deadly force.  The inhuman what’s-it commences killing off the Nazis, inspiring their cold-hearted leader (a hammier-than-usual Gabriel Byrne) to call in a Jewish scholar (Ian McKellan) to figure out what’s going on.

The evil critter, who with each new killing looks more and more like the “Incredible Hulk in drag” described by Wilson (see above), gets in touch with McKellan and convinces him to do its bidding.  It seems McKellan will have to venture deep into the Keep, find a magical talisman and carry it out.  Meanwhile, a creepy dude possessing undefined supernatural powers (Scott Glenn) is on his way to the Keep to do battle with the creature (those looking for a backstory to any of this will have to read the book, as there’s none to be had here).  He stops off in the surrounding village to schtupp McKellan’s daughter (Alberta Watson, wearing too much make-up); these two actually make a good couple, as neither has any discernible personality.

Eventually all the characters converge in the bowels of the Keep.  McKellan realizes the creature’s motives are just as suspect as those of the Nazis and, rather than carry the talisman out as the monster decrees, gives it to Glenn, who uses it to somehow decimate the creature and himself.

One thing I’ll say about THE KEEP: it looks fantastic.  The cinematography by the great Alex Thompson (EXCALIBUR) succeeds in giving the film a creepy, ominous veneer and the set design by John Box is just as striking.  Particularly impressive are the details of the town surrounding the Keep, clearly patterned after the setting of Paul Wegener’s 1915 classic DER GOLEM.  The above-mentioned monster also appears to have been inspired by DER GOLEM, but there was a fumble here: didn’t anybody connected with the production realize they were creating one of the dumbest looking critters in movie history?

Despite how it might seem, this was not intended as an art film but a commercial entertainment for the masses (Mann, after all, is the creator of MIAMI VICE).  That makes this severely artsy, incoherent film all the more inexplicable, with its many unmotivated close-ups and gratuitous music video-like interludes.  Tangerine Dream’s electronic score has developed a vast cult following over the years, but it isn’t particularly well used; Mann often seems to be trying to make the images fit the music (that would explain all the gratuitous slow mo) rather than the other way around.

I will concede that THE KEEP contains one truly awesome sequence: the scene near the beginning when the soldiers have removed one of the Keep’s metal crosses and find themselves staring into darkness.  The camera slowly pulls back from a lit flashlight to reveal a darkened cavern so vast that by the end of the pullback the beam is but a tiny spot in the distance.  This sequence alone is worth the price of admission, showing the hand of a master.  Truly, only a deeply skilled filmmaker could pull off a film as colossally misguided as this one.

Vital Statistics

Paramount Pictures

Director: Michael Mann
Producers: Gene Kirkwood, Howard W. Koch Jr.
Screenplay: Michael Mann
(Based on a novel by F. Paul Wilson)
Cinematography: Alex Thompson
Editor: Dov Hoenig
Cast: Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Gabriel Byrne, Jurgen Prochnow, Ian McKellan, Robert Prosky, William Morgan Sheppard, Royston Tickner, Phillip Joseph, Michael Carter, John Vine, Jona Jones, Wolf Kahler, Rosalie Crutchley, Frederick Warder