The Keep (1983)

the keepSaw this film many years ago, back in 1984 I think, maybe 1985, on a VHS rental. As I remember, I rather enjoyed it at the time, particularly the creature design. The premise seemed quite novel; set in World War Two, Nazis occupying a remote mountain keep unleash an ancient evil.  The film has been most notable for the fact that it was directed by Michael Mann (famous for Miami Vice, the classic films Heat, Manhunter etc) and also that the film is unavailable on current home formats due to rights issues (and an alleged campaign by Mann to bury the film). The other night it was on Film 4 so I set up the TIVO and have finally managed to see it again after over a quarter of a century- yeah, you know you’re getting old when you write lines like that.

Well, oh dear. This film hasn’t aged well at all. You can see the influence of Mann’s own Miami Vice tv series on this film; the slo-mo visuals, the electronic Tangerine Dream soundtrack. Miami Vice had a fine electronic music score by Jan Hammer breathing life into it, a heartbeat to the flash neon-drenched visuals. Mann was clearly aiming at something like that when he sought an electronic soundtrack for this period horror film. Back in the ‘eighties Tangerine Dream were extremely popular for (cheap?) soundtracks that were deemed ‘hip’ at the time. The group did soundtracks for films like Miracle Mile, Firestarter, and infamously supplied a replacement score for Ridley Scott’s troubled Legend utterly abhorrent to anyone who prefers the Goldsmith score it replaced. Its remarkable now that any of that TD stuff was popular at all- I have no real experience of their ‘pop’ albums, but their score work is dismal. The TD score to The Keep is that old familiar droning that is a poor fit for the period setting and yet also manages to make the film seem horribly entrenched in the ‘eighties.

The score doesn’t work, but neither does the film itself either. Its a mess. The acting is uneven at best, shocking at its worst, the script is shambolic, the editing confusing. Its clearly a broken movie. The films fans (and yes, incredibly, this film does have its fans) sees the mess and describes it as surreal, dream-like. Sorry folks its just simply bad film-making.  Now, I’ve read over the years that Mann fell out with Paramount Pictures, that his three-hour cut was edited down to under two-hours, that this was done behind his back. I suspect much of this talk is by apologists for Mann considering the fine films he made afterwards. Maybe there is a good film buried in the vaults somewhere but I doubt it, I doubt any Directors Cut could save this film.  Its just one of those situations where its unavailability on DVD or Blu-ray has lent the film something of a mystical status for some, as if its a  great film withheld from the masses. Well its not, its simply a bad movie perhaps best left in home video limbo. And seeing the influence of Miami Vice‘s style I wouldn’t grant Mann  immunity from the blame. Its just a wonder he had great films in him.

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3 thoughts on “The Keep (1983)

  1. Pingback: The Keep (1983) | 100 Films in a Year

  2. I saw this a few months back: someone dug up a 35mm print in pretty good shape, so it was screened at the Prince Charles cinema. A friend [a Mann enthusiast who hadn’t seen it yet] and I went along.

    I think it holds up better than you give it credit for. For me, it’s a film that sits on the same shelf as ‘Alien 3’, ‘Dune’, ‘Watchmen’ and ‘Sunshine’: not what you could call ‘good’ overall, but much too interesting and full of good things to be written off as bad.

    I think the re-editing story is absolutely true: if you look hard, you can see where the scale of the film-making, and the pacing of the scenes that remain are clearly geared for something slower and grandiose. Kim Newman was also at that screening, and I overhead him comment to someone on the way out that the film moves too slowly, but feels rushed at the same time. That nails it, I think.

    But amazing photography [Brit DoP Alex Thompson: seriously under-rated], and it’s very ambitious, and does create a mood. I liked the effects for the creature, as well.

    Where we do completely agree is on the TD soundtrack. I’ve tried very hard with TD, listened to a lot of their albums, but apart from the really earthy, early psych-rock stuff, it all sounds really thin and dreary. Their film soundtracks do seem to be their very worst work, and I can’t see why they had such a strong fanbase. The one time their film music has worked is in Mann’s earlier ‘Thief’, particularly the track used for the main robbery towards the end, but even then it often hinders the more introspective moments with tinny blear.

    Did you jump out of your seat the same way I did at the end? When the one good bit of music in the film [a powerful tape loop of a choral sound] suddenly resolved itself into “Walking In The Air” from ‘The Snowman’? Inexplicable. That’s definitely a Mann moment.

    1. Thanks for your comment, nice to see someone who thinks so much of the film. I still think its a broken movie (very much like Lynch’s Dune, a film with similar missing footage issues), but I’d be interested in seeing a directors cut if ever the longer cut/missing footage became available. Oddly enough, its films like this that deserve the remake treatment rather than films like Total Recall or RoboCop.

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