Retro Review: The Keep (1983)

If you dig deep into the annals of Michael Mann’s filmography you’ll find this little “gem”. The Keep is Mann’s second film and a lot of directors stumble here, succumbing to sophomore jinx and high pressure to deliver the goods from studio executives. If you look at his body of work you’d be hard pressed to say Mann could fail at anything (Manhunter, Miami Vice, Last of the Mohicans, Heat, Ali, The Insider….yeah, they’re all his and they’re all good). However, if you take a peek at the Metacritic aggregate for The Keep before watching, you’d be greeted by a bold red square with a white 14 in the middle. For those who don’t know, they use a 0 to 100 scale. Grim tidings await us, I’m afraid.

Nazis have accidentally unleashed an ancient evil that was locked deep within an equally ancient fortress they’ve occupied in Romania. Once this ancient evil is released they realize that the keep wasn’t meant as a stronghold to keep things out….it was built to literally keep this ancient evil inside. Now things have gotten out of control and they’re forced to rely on an Jewish man and his daughter who are aware of the keep and some of the secrets it holds. Doesn’t sound so bad, right?!? Plus, the film stars Scott Glenn, Gabriel Byrne, Jurgen Prochnow, and Ian McKellan. How does The Keep hold an average score of 14 out of 100 with all that talent?

Let’s start with the good. Visually The Keep is compelling. It evokes a real sense of mystery and dread as the events of the film unfold. The Keep itself is a great setting….claustrophobic, dark, and steeped in ancient history (not all of which is known). The Tangerine Dream soundtrack is spot on and adds an ethereal quality to a lot of the scenes, and honestly I could sit and listen to them for hours on end. Alright, that’s it for the good! Now on to the bad……

The writer of the novel, F. Paul Wilson has blasted the way his book was used and was not happy with the film at all. Michael Mann has disowned the film, leading it to all but disappear during the 90’s once the VHS copies sold out. Tangerine Dream would not release the rights for their music to be used on a DVD version so the film sat in obscurity for ages. Meanwhile a cult following has supported the film, especially seeing how Mann was able to rebound over the ensuing decades. It does have a lot of the visual trademarks that Mann is known for, but the film is mired in overacting, terrible editing (Mann’s original cut is over 3 1/2 hours long…..the final cut comes in at just over 1 1/2 hours…needless to say, a lot of things don’t make a lot of sense), and the special effects were dated, even at the time of filming. Overall it’s worth a watch as a novelty or as a Mann completionist, but don’t look for more than that. It’s not even one of those “so-bad-it’s-good” movies. It’s just bad.


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