The month of October is upon us, and it’s that time of year where every major magazine and entertainment news show rolls out their own list of the best horror movies (EVER!) that should be on your required viewing list as we run up to Halloween. This series will not be that kind of list. No, we’ll be looking at the movies that, while still kind of good, didn’t quite live up to the expectations of the creators involved and might be best played for maximum enjoyment at your Halloween get together only after copious amounts of your favorite adult beverage has been consumed. Yes, these are the films that are so bad that they’re good(ish) and enjoyable for how spectacularly they failed to live up to their potential.
Today we look at The Keep.
You know, one of the staples of much of the 70’s and 80’s entertainment industry, books, television, and movies, was showcasing the drug culture of the time. One of the subjects that the entertainment industry liked to showcase from time to time as suffering from rampant drug and alcohol abuse was in fact the entertainment industry itself. You would get depictions of everyone from the lowliest starlet wannabe to the most powerful Hollywood exec drunkenly snorting enough cocaine to kill anyone not named Hunter S. Thompson.
Sometimes they really overdid it. You would look at the TV screen or the pages of your book while thinking that it was insane how much they were overplaying it. There was just no way that drug and alcohol use was that bad in Hollywood. There would have been no way that the place could have functioned if it had been that screwed up. And then, occasionally, you come across a product from that era in Hollywood’s history where you find yourself thinking that they might have just been underplaying exactly how coked out of their minds everyone really was. The Keep is one of those films.
The Keep started its life as a film in the way that many other films have. Someone somewhere in the power structure read a book that they thought was just amazing. In this case, that book was F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep. So enamored with the book was this someone somewhere in Hollywood that they convinced others to follow the tried and true Hollywood path of spending gobs of money on securing the rights for the book and then deciding that they could rewrite the thing better than the author wrote it.
At that point, someone in Hollywood, likely drunk and coked out of their minds, decided that this intense horror novel should be turned over to Miami Vice’s Michael Mann. Yes, someone looked at flashy visuals, fast cuts, and MTV style editing and said that they needed that look for their horror movie. Oh, and Mann was going to get to write the screenplay.
Anyone not under the influence of seriously mind altering substances should be able to see that this formula is a disaster waiting to happen. Oddly, even as it made The Keep a spectacular failure, it also managed to make it interestingly viewable.
The Keep opens in 1941 Romania. A German battalion rolls into a small town and up to a strange looking fortress-like structure. Visually, you immediately realize that something isn’t quite right about this place. It’s very obviously designed less to keep others out and more to keep something in. Inside the fortress is a local who acts as the caretaker of the place. He warns the Nazi intruders, led by Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), that they should not stay in this place and that they should leave the crosses embedded in the walls alone.
Okay. They’re Germans. More to the point, they’re Nazis. This is a horror film. A really creepy old guy has just spelled out to them what they’re not to do in the opening act of the film. Anyone care to take a guess at what they in fact decide to do?
So, after the Nazis set up shop there, things start to go wrong. With flashy, crisp, MTV era music video-like visuals, the mood starts to get very dream-like and very dark. And it is in fact these visuals that are one of the elements that make the film a watchable so-bad-it’s-good film. This is a visually gorgeous film that looks incredible on the small screen and likely looked just north of amazing on the big screen. Michael Mann may have missed the boat on giving the movie the mood and atmosphere of a true horror film, but he absolutely created a dream-like darkness in the film that is just beautiful to behold. It may often fail to make even a lick of sense, but it’s stunningly gorgeous to look at while it’s failing to make a lick of sense.
One of the things that go disastrously wrong for the Nazis is the discovery by two soldiers on guard duty that the nickel crosses in the walls are in fact silver crosses. So, on top of having decided to stay where they aren’t supposed to stay, these two compound matters by touching the crosses. Actually, they go beyond just touching by deciding to go and dig one out of the wall. They run around in the fog in a really cool, slow motion visual style, they find a big cavern behind the cross, and then they die hideously.
Enter Molasar. Molasar is the big bad that the place was constructed to keep away from the outside world. Fortunately for the outside world, the crosses are not the only thing preventing him from strolling out into a war-torn country and really going to town on it. For now, Molasar has to be content with just killing Nazis in the keep.
And Molasar is, without a doubt, when not looking like a swirly, cloudy thing, the best live-action onscreen version of DC Comics’ Darkseid we’ll likely ever see at this point. I fully expect him to start kicking Superman’s ass at any moment here.
Woermann starts to worry since his men are getting killed and he can’t figure out how or by whom. His requests for help are answered in the form of an S.S. attachment led by Gabriel Byrne. Major Kaempffer of the S.S. looks at the problem and finds a logical solution. He starts shooting villagers.
Oh, yeah. Elsewhere in the world, a mystical Scott Glenn suddenly sits bolt upright in his bed. We know his character, Glaeken Trismegestus, is probably supposed to be the good guy here since he seems to be responding to the fact that the big bad is now breaking free. Oh, and his eyes occasionally glow green vs. Molasar’s glowing red eyes. If they ever do a remake, Sam Jackson will get the role of Glaeken and insist that his eyes instead glow purple for no apparent reason that anyone can fathom.
More death, more dream-like moments, more flashy cuts, and a few moments of lens flare that probably gave a young J.J. Abrams a smile that had to be chiseled off of his face brings us to the discovery of mysterious writings in the keep. This brings the need for an expert on such matters and, since apparently Nazis can only be soldiers and mad scientists, they bring in an old Jewish professor and his daughter. And who did they turn to 30 years ago when they needed to cast a convincing old man character in a film filled with Nazis, dark fantasy elements, and striking visuals? Why, Ian McKellen of course.
So Dr. Theodore Cuza arrives and things go even more wrong. Because Nazis on film can’t go twenty minutes without raping women, the Nazis try to rape Cuza’s daughter Eva. This does not go as pleasantly for them as they had hoped as Molasar shows up and rips them to shreds. He then uses this act, along with curing Cuza of his illness while making him young again, to convince Dr. Cuza that he is in fact a trapped golem who could be a really great help if only he could leave the place. Cuza agrees to help him by searching for and then removing the talisman that holds Molasar in the keep. Eva isn’t quite as trusting of Molasar as her father is, but her father’s need for revenge both clouds his judgment and somehow feeds Molasar.
That’s actually one of the things that survived from the original story but didn’t get very much explaining in the film. Molasar tends to feed off of the base natures of mankind. He feeds on and is strengthened by Cuza’s hate and need for revenge as well as on the perversions in Kaempffer’s nature. It’s also not really followed up on other than just enough to let the viewer know that, yeah, he’s the bad guy here.
Glaeken arrives in town, meets Eva Cruz, and has a quick chat with her that leads to the two of them rolling around naked in bed together. No, I’m not leaving anything in their onscreen relationship out here. Mann does try to use the moment in bed to foreshadow one of the things Glaeken will do later in the film, so good for him. Of course, being Michael Mann in the 1980s, he also loses a few points for doing it with all the subtlety of a giant, flashing neon sign.
From there, things race to their strange, laser lightshow battle-filled end. People die, people find out just who and what they’re dealing with, some people come to their senses, other people don’t come to their senses, and good faces off against evil to save the world. And when it’s all said and done, you won’t have a clue as to what the hell you just watched.
The Keep is, storyline-wise, a complete mess. Things are jumbled, and the plot just seems to push forward with what feels like a narrative that had great chunks of it lost somewhere along the way. Molasar, the big bad of the film, only has his name mentioned once in the entire thing. Dialogue in the film occasionally makes no sense and more than a few times sounds like it was poorly dubbed into the film after the fact. This may be because The Keep is in fact missing great chunks of story, shots were moved around a bit, and some dialogue was clumsily dubbed into some scenes in the last of the post production stage.
Michael Mann intended this film to be an epic masterpiece. His original first cut for the film clocked in at around three-and-a-half hours in length. By the time the studio was done with it, the print that was released was 93 minutes long. Two hours of footage was excised from the film, and scenes were redubbed so that dialogue no longer referenced plot points and scenes removed from the final cut. The result is that you end up with moments like Eva seemingly leaping into bed after knowing Glaeken for less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee, conversations that seem like they belong somewhere else in the film, and somewhat important questions about Glaeken, Molasar, the keep, and the general story of the film that are never answered by the end. But, amazingly, the film is still watchable. You just won’t really have any clue what the hell you’ve just watched.
The visuals are hypnotic in and of themselves, but the soundtrack by Tangerine Dream combined with the visuals makes it an almost dream-like experience. It’s beautiful. It’s powerful. It’s dark. It’s ugly. It’s beautiful again. And then, when it’s over, you shake your head, blink a bit, and feel like you can’t quite recall everything about what you just experienced. You think you should like it, but you can’t quite put your finger on why you should.
You watch it with this odd feeling that there was indeed a masterpiece buried in there, but you can’t quite figure out where it went. By the time you turn it off, you either walk away from it never to return or you find yourself oddly attracted to it and returning for viewings once every few years in a hopeless attempt to figure out what it is that you just watched. It almost becomes like that dream that you keep trying to have so that you can finally remember it. But, like that one strange, recurring dream that we all have that we try to remember at last, you just wake up from The Keep with a slightly confused, incomplete memory of it. But despite that description of it, The Keep is one of those films that you have to experience at least once. It is a horror film so amazingly bad while so visually stunning that it really is a so-bad-it’s-good masterpiece in and of itself.
The Keep has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray. It has however shown up on Netflix and Amazon streaming services with great regularity over the last couple of years. And having a rabid cult following determined to share it, there are also usually several different complete uploads of the film on YouTube at any given time that are often of high visual quality.
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