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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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Scott Frank’s The Lookout


Scott Frank’s The Lookout is a film where every turn of plot, exchange of dialogue, set piece and stylistic choice just seems to mesh flawlessly, resulting in a package that’s nearly as perfect as you can get. Part psychological character study, part crime thriller, sewn together lovingly by threads of brilliantly written, intelligent interpersonal drama that seems lived in, the writer never uses the pen to pander nor patronize, but provides well drawn, realistic human beings who sound like actual people and not archetypes dwelling within the pages, never fully realized. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Chris Pratt (not actual Chris Pratt lol) a young hotshot who becomes the victim of his own cocky, self destructive behaviour. After a horrific car accident that was entirely his fault, his girlfriend is left maimed and he a busted up shell of his former self, saddled with bushels of brain damage and the inability to cohesively live his day to day life the way he did before. It’s some sort of synapse frying neurological scarring that’s never fully explained, but the symptoms are clearly and fascinatingly outlined in a way that no other film has really tried before. He’s left somewhat adrift in life, naively attracted to his foxy psychiatrist (Carla Gugino), misunderstood by his parents (Bruce McGill & Alberta Watson), and cared for by his eccentric, blind and motor-mouthed roommate (Jeff Daniels, a standout as always). He happens to be from a small midwestern town though, and in movie land these burgs are almost always filled with schemes, heists, double crosses and feed store robberies. ‘Bro seduced’ by an equally suave and shady dude (Matthew Goode, whose work here lives up to that surname and then some), Chris is shanghaied into assisting in the hold up of the very bank he works at, and soon the kind of hell that would make the Coen brothers applaud breaks loose. Everything makes sense though, the jigsaw pieces of the narrative nestling flush against one another, not a beat feeling out of place or in danger of derailing the whole thing. That’s not the easiest thing to achieve, especially in a taught running time that clocks in under two hours and still manages to feel substantial. Levitt is terrific, a guy who used to be in control, used to be revered as the alpha who takes care of things, his condition worsened by the knowledge that people know full well how broken he is. The stakes are inherently high when someone that set back by life must navigate their way through the complex ins and outs of pulling off a bank heist. One hell of a film.  

-Nate Hill