Sometimes one just doesn’t know where to file some films.
But it’s even worse when you get the impression that even the director didn’t know.
Not long before his success with the TV series Miami Vice, Michael Mann directed this strange, moody and very artistic horror film. The Keep is awash in eerie atmosphere, with its oppressive sets, dream-like cinematography, and unsettling electronic score by Tangerine Dream. It doesn’t seem to have that much to do with its source, F. Paul Wilson’s novel: while Mann kept the Nazi soldiers the evil creature they encounter isn’t a vampire. Maybe.
(I have to confess that I was disappointed that they didn’t use a moment from the original book, when a character wonders why the Crucifix worked on the vampire, but not a Star of David).
The film has a fairly impressive collection of talent, with Gabriel Byrne, Jürgen Prochnow, Max Headroom‘s W. Morgan Sheppard, Ian McKellen, and one of the most sadly underused actors around, Scott Glenn, in a goofy and thankless sort of role as some kind of mysterious guardian. Or something like that (curiously, the version I saw failed to list him in the opening credits!). It is also worth noting that Enki Bilal, the European cartoonist who also directed Bunker Palace Hôtel and Tykho Moon designed the creature.
The studio wasn’t exactly happy with his three hour rough cut and insisted on a ninety minute film. When he balked at this, they took the film out of his hands, and he has basically washed his hands of the end result, although whatever inconsistencies there are in the film just seem to help the rather strange, dreamlike mood.
It has since become a sort of a cult film, although I’m not sure how much that has to do with the fact that it has been unavailable since it’s original VHS release. It’s amazing how much not being seen has helped some films!
What brings this film to our attention, however, is the rather remarkable ending, when we finally see the talisman that has been holding the creature in the fortress is some sort of…device with a small glowing orb. Which Scott Glenn screws into the rod he’s been carrying around in a special case throughout the film and turns it into…
…Well, a light saber. At least that’s what it looks like.
And, of course, there are laser beams everywhere. And lots of colorful bursts of energy
Is he really trying to suggest that the creature is some sort of alien, or that the fortress was really built by one of those superior alien races Erich von Däniken used to write about? Who knows? It is at least one of the possibilities.
Oh well. I’m not even sure Michael knew. Although, if he’d got all the extra money he wanted from the studio, for all the effects he needed to complete his big climax, it might have answered a few questions.
Not that it really seems that likely. The ending is already over the top as it is.
Somehow, post Star Wars, this sort of thing happened a lot, where fantasy or horror films ended up with very science-fictional elements tacked on — mostly so there would be plenty of flashy effects. The 1983 Lou Ferrigno Hercules comes to mind, with its odd space effects and the mechanical monsters built by King Minos, as does the sword and sorcery fantasy Krull.
This is a singularly beautiful film. It may not be a great horror film, nor does it answer a lot of the viewers questions, or fall into any easily defined genre, but the end result is a strange and truly unsettling film that isn’t what we expect it to be.
We’re talking about a unique experience, one whose haunted imagery will linger with you long after you’ve forgotten better movies. It is well worth a look, particularly now that Amazon has made it somewhat more available.
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