I'm not sure what I expected to feel after watching "The Keep," a movie that is widely noted to be a cinematic misfire. Unkle Lancifer recently did a beautiful job of capturing the attract-repulse appeal of this movie over at Kindertrauma, and my interest had been piqued by his article. After watching Michael Mann's 1983 supernatural horror film and feeling as unfulfilled as Unk, I was still interested enough in its story of Nazis pitted against an elemental evil that I figured the source novel by F. Paul Wilson would clarify some of the muddled mess of the movie. As it turns out, I was right, but the clarity provided by the book didn't improve the story. Now I'm in the unenviable situation of feeling frustrated as a viewer and as a reader.
Friends, this is going to get spoilery, so keep that in mind if you choose to continue reading.
Watching Mann's 1983 version of "The Keep," it becomes clear that the production was plagued by typical horror-movie issues: budgetary strictures, wonky FX, and the pressure to stick to a 90-minute run time. Viewing the movie without having read the book makes the story feel pretty incomprehensible after a certain point. In the film, a group of Wermacht soldiers arrive at an ancient fortress in Romania, having been told to hold this position to enforce the Eastern front. After some treasure-hungry soldiers pry a protective sigil off the wall of the building, a series of gruesome killings begin to occur as the result of the unleashed evil. A squad of SS einsatzkommandos arrive as reinforcements, but their brutal methods put the two groups of Germans at each others' throats. Jewish historian Theodor Cuza and his daughter Eva are brought in to investigate the causes of the deaths, and they soon come in contact with the supernatural entity behind the killings. When a mysterious stranger shows up in the little village, it soon becomes clear that there are Evils Greater Than Man at work. Then everything deteriorates into a hott mess of rubbery creature FX, unclear timelines, half-baked mythology, romantic-entanglement-outta-nowhere and lasers.
It would be easy to dismiss the movie entirely if there weren't flashes of very real awesomeness in there. The locations and set design are gorgeously atmospheric. Right from the first frames, it's clear that the setting is going to play a large role in the tone of the film. As the troops roll through a fairytale Romanian village, the black stone structure of the keep emerges from the mist. The scale of the keep is emphasized from its first appearance--it's a daunting, black stone structure that towers over the surrounding village. The film finds its chilling high point early on, when the soldiers pry a silver cross from the wall. Lensed using slow motion, billowing fog, and glowing lighting, this sequence builds suspense that leads to a satisfyingly gruesome payoff.
Much of "The Keep's" cult appeal has been laid at the doorstep of the synth soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. Fans of Michael Mann's work will be unsurprised at the pitch-perfect matching of movie to music, and this effort is no exception. I'll confess that I'm partial to the pairing of moody synth with supernatural themes and this is another instance where the music track enhances the on-screen content.
The cast includes a number of notable names. Jürgen Prochnow is perfectly cast as Wermacht Captain Klaus Woermann and Gabriel Byrne puts in a performance that has moments of both over-puffed camp and genuine creepiness as SS Major Kaempffer. The scenes that focus on the tension between these characters (and the soldiers they control) are the best in the film. This conflict between the officers deftly sketches the larger-scale conflict within the German war machine during WWII. It's interesting to see the way these men cope with the deaths within the keep and the revelation of the otherworldly forces at work.
The depictions of the "good guy" characters are significantly less engaging, and that's a real problem when the audience is meant to root for them as they battle against charismatic evil-doers and a timeless supernatural killer. Ian McKellen's turn as Professor Cuza is actively awful, to the point where I kept thinking that the actor in this role was some terrible unknown actor who happened to look a lot like Sir McKellen. Alberta Watson's Eva is mainly "pretty" and Scott Glenn focuses on "aloof" with a single-minded intensity in his portrayal of the mysterious visitor.
Then there's that plot. There are large chunks of character development that have been left out, and there's no explanation of where the monster in the keep comes from. Being that this is a horror film, I can overlook a certain degree of that, but the last half hour goes so far off the rails that I just gave up trying to understand anything. It's fortunate that I wasn't alone when I watched "The Keep," because otherwise I'd have assumed that I was the victim of alien-abduction-induced Missing Time.
Working under the theory that Really Cool Stuff had been excised from the movie in order to accommodate a shorter run time and curious to check out what I'd missed, I grabbed a copy of F. Paul Wilson's novel of the same name and set to reading it.
There are some key differences in Wilson's novel that work in its favor. Woermann and Kaempffer are more richly depicted, and they are given a backstory that begins in the trenches of the first World War and traces their diverging military careers. The monster in the keep initially convinces the humans that he is a vampire before his true nature is revealed. Professor Cuza is kind of a selfish, traditionalist dick instead of just the victim of bad acting. His daughter Eva is less-sexily named Magda and is nearly-raped several times, rather than just once in the film. And yes, much of the stuff that didn't make any sense in the movie is explained, though not necessarily for the better.
When dealing with monsters on film, a nugget of wisdom holds that one should reveal the creature at a strategic point in the narrative in order to maintain suspense for as long as possible. Not knowing what is going on in the keep provides a large portion of the story's eeriness. So when it comes to light that the creature is an evil being from pre-human times who is being hunted by a good being also from pre-human times, it's kind of hard to care. It would've been impossible to explain the monster and still have it hold the same degree of fright. If anything, the novel over-explains the supernatural elements, making their magic evaporate.
Furthermore, it's one thing to watch Nazis getting killed by an elemental evil--that sort of monster-on-monster action is pretty great in any manifestation. I could even overlook the kinda-triteness of the inherently-decent Jewish academics. But when a superpowered dude fighting on the side of light has to show up and pull everybody's muffins out of the oven like a muscley deus ex machina... that's just not interesting. Villains fighting worse-villains, or regular people fighting villains AND worse-villains both make for interesting setups because they're working against overwhelming odds. When somebody shows up with a magic demon-bopping stick and then GAME OVER's the whole damn thing, it feels like a ripoff. It's as boring as a Superman story. He's fucking Superman--he's going to be fine because he's impossibly good and damn near invulnerable, and who the hell cares about that?
At the end of the day, the positive message one can take from "The Keep" is that the ultimate Nazis versus Things That Are A Lot Like Vampires story has yet to be told. Book and film have some intriguing elements, but each is too flawed to be considered a classic of horror storytelling. The real tragedy of "The Keep" is that in straddling the line between EC Comics weirdness and epic myth-making, it manages to miss the boat on both.