Hoping for resurrection: Michael Mann’s The Keep

It’s a shame that Michael Mann feels the way he does about The Keep, and although I can’t really blame him after the Leatherface worthy hack job the studio inflicted on his original three plus hour cut, it’s a heartbreak and a half that we may never see a director’s version because what is left is still one of the most haunting, beautifully done Lovecraftian horror fever dreams one can find in VHS-land. Based on a brilliant novel by F. Paul Wilson, Mann employs a legion of smoke machines, a troupe of eclectic character actors all cast against type and giving marvellous work, and a drop dead gorgeous original score from Tangerine Dream that remains in my top OST’s to this day. Somewhere deep in the Romanian mountains, a squadron of German soldiers led by weary Captain Woerman (Jurgen Pröchnow) comes a across a tiny hidden village that harbours a dark secret: just beyond the township is a looming, mysterious structure built to keep something locked inside, and has lain dormant for centuries. Their gravest mistake is setting up camp in this unholy basilica, for soon they’ve awoken whatever resides within, and it really wants out. Cue the arrival of sadistic SS officer Kaempffer (a very young Gabriel Byrne) and his Nazi bastard crew, as well as a professor of ancient languages (Ian Mckellan) with his daughter (the late Alberta Watson). Elsewhere in Europe, otherworldly stranger Glaecken (the great Scott Glenn) is stirred by the happenings at the Keep and treks across the war torn continent towards an unknown end. What follows is an entrancing supernatural fusion mixup of old school prosthetic effects, genocide metaphors, lovingly creaky production design and synth music that will scorch your soul. Glenn plays the shadowy warrior better than ever here, with a paranormal gleam in his eyes and the stone-faced, gravel voiced resolve to see his strange quest through to a brutal conclusion. McKellen emotes fiercely both in and out of some well done old age makeup, sometimes almost unrecognizable but always spirited and present. Pröchnow rarely gets non villain roles with depth but this might be his best ever, early in his career too. He turns the Captain into a sorrowful picture of regret and compassion that one doesn’t often see in Hollywood based German army roles from WWII. Watson is a doe eyed beauty whose loss of innocence and discovery of love is portrayed wonderfully by the actress, who sadly passed away long before her time. Byrne is evil incarnate, with a startling cropped haircut that would be right at home in this day and age it seems. Mann favourite Robert Prosky also shows up as a local priest with knowledge of The Keep. Somewhere out there in someone’s garage there lies a full cut of this film, just waiting for an extended Blu Ray transfer, complete with tweaks on sound design (its fuzzy commotion at times), special features and the redemptive treatment that a sterling genre addition like this deserves. There’s so much quality to be found in it, from the alluring atmosphere that’s so thick it finds its way into your dreams after, to the aforementioned Tangerine Dream soundtrack that haunts the film’s visual landscape like an auditory phantasm to the silver and purple hued neon production design, resplendent in its tactile, tangible glory, it stands as a flawed classic with the potential to be so much more, if Mann mans up and makes the effort to give one of his very best efforts that care and time it deserves to rise from the void and soar again. If only. Oh and one more thing: there’s one more scene before the credits that isn’t in the actual cut, but go find it on YouTube because it’s really worth it and adds a lot to the story.

-Nate Hill

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