THE KEEP... Tonight They Will All Face the Evil
Michael Mann’s The Keep is one of the biggest A-grade horror productions never released on DVD or Blu-Ray. The 1984 Paramount VHS fetches upwards of $100 as a collectible, and is popular, worldwide, among digital rippers. In a role that screams, “Eat your heart out,” to the Nazi villains of Raiders of the Lost Ark, it launched Gabriel Byrne’s screen career, and holds the world record for Greatest Fog Machine and Dry Ice Output Ever Seen on Film.
The year is 1941. A group of Nazi soldiers led by the conflicted Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) enter a small Romanian village. There, they are ordered to garrison The Keep: a massive, mysterious stone citadel that harbors a strange presence. Inside The Keep, German soldiers begin gruesomely disappearing. This leads to the brutal Major Kaempfer (Byrne) taking over the operation. The only man who can explain the strange occurrences, according to locals, is medieval historian Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellan), currently incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp. Cuza and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are thus temporarily freed, and travel to The Keep. Once inside, they learn that something evil is indeed trying to escape. But even they are duped by it. A motorcycle-bound messiah (Scott Glenn) is the only one who can stop the evil force. But can get there before it’s too late, before it breaks free and destroys the world?
The Keep is a mixed bag. Its elements range from stunning to awful. The first half of the film would be brilliant---if it didn’t build up to the second half. The moody, creeping pace of the beginning is wasted on the so-called conclusion, populated by confusing talk of a talisman, the monster barking obscure commands at people, and lots of Dracula-like cross waving. At no point in the movie is any explanation for the monster given, and this doesn’t come off as some grand, agnostic musing. It comes off as poor storytelling. Whatever the monster is, he takes the physical form of a 9-foot-tall Golem/Swamp Thing lovechild, talks like Vincent Price on steroids, and sucks bright, white light out of his victims’ faces. Likewise, no explanation is given for the supernatural hero: a dapper, Stephen Kingesque, leather-clad sorcerer that could utter, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” with conviction.
From beginning to end, the movie does, at least, look great. The sets are fascinating. Michael Mann’s photography enables surreal undertones. Even in the last half hour, after the story has gone off the rails, degenerated into boring nonsense, the foggy, trippy lighting, slow-motion action shots, and Legend-like special effects are enough to keep you watching. And speaking of Legend, Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack is stellar, invigorating the atmosphere. With a more than capable cast, McKellan, Byrne, and Prochnow show typical moments of brilliance, but offer lactose-laden moments as well. McKellan’s final showdown with the monster, in which he cries, “TAAAKE IT! TAAAKE IT!” springs immediately to mind. No main character is any old dumb archetype, but even this may go too far, as Prochnow’s role is intended as a sympathetic Nazi soldier. I’ll let you do the arguing.
Keep your eyes out for one of the cheesiest sex scenes of all time, too. I wonder if Scot Glen and Alberta Watson had to do countless takes of forming a cross with their arms because they couldn’t stop laughing. The Keep’s dirty part is like an uncensored version of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” music video. It’s high in the running, alongside Road House and anything starring Steven Segal, for worst sex scene of all time.
To the VHS collector, The Keep, although generally omitted from Michael Mann’s résumé, considered a disgrace by F. Paul Wilson, whose novel the film is based on, is essential. With the same mid-‘80s Paramount Home Video-style slipcase that harbored Indiana Jones, and Star Trek sequels, The Keep is a golden nugget. When people talk about horror movies not on DVD or Blu-Ray, it inevitably comes up. At a time when Paramount was cranking out uncostly slasher flicks like Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine, a Gothic horror piece with elements of fantasy represented unbridled ambition. The Keep, like Ishtar and Waterworld, is a classic of failed ambition. The VHS collector holds The Keep, and they hold one of the first horror movies people think of when they think of non-digital oddities. It’s thus indispensable.