Based on a novel by F. Paul Wilson, this strange film seems like wildly unlikely subject matter for director Michael Mann. Fresh off the success of crime films such as The Jericho Mile (1979) and Thief (1981), Mann was just about to launch the TV show Miami Vice (1984—1989), which he produced, and he was still a few years away from making his best genre film, the near perfect Manhunter (1986). But in 1983, Mann turned briefly away from crime and action cinema for a horror film set in WWII-era Romania about a powerful, vengeful spirit smiting Nazis in a mysterious fortress. The film is certainly an about-face from Thief and is a rare American horror film from the period set during WWII. While some early American genre films made this connection, such as B-movies like King of the Zombies (1941), Return of the Vampire (1944), and They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968), these were themes generally relegated to lower budget cult films rather than Hollywood productions. Certainly Mann was not the first director from the period to explore such subject matter, thanks to titles like Shock Waves (1977), The Boys from Brazil (1978), and Death Ship (1980), but in general, these films were few and far between. In the ’80s and ’90s, WWII narratives were far more often used as the focus of overwrought melodramas.
The film follows a perhaps unexplected protagonist: Wehrmacht Captain Klaus Wörmann (the wonderful Jürgen Prochnow), leading his unit in the midst of Operation Barbossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union that began in summer of 1941—the largest (and arguably the most horrific) military invasion in history. Wörmann’s unit infiltrates what is believed to be a medieval Romanian citadel. Believing it to be full of hidden treasures, some of the men attempt to loot the place, particularly targeting a series of ornate crosses in the walls. As a result, they accidentally wake up a creature known as Radu Molasar (Michael Carter), a Golem-like entity kept prisoner by ancient magics. A priest (Robert Prosky) convinces the Nazis—including a hostile SS unit who have begun executing locals and are led by the ruthless Sturmbannführer Erich Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne)—that a Jewish historian (Ian McKellen) housed in a nearby concentration camp can solve the mystery of… the Keep (*cue dramatic music*).
Within the film, stakes are raised considerably because Radu Molasar’s violent response against the German soldiers is blamed on Romanian partisans. In response, the SS begin executing local citizens, in keeping with an all too common practice on the eastern front during WWII. The creature functions similarly to the titular entity in Paul Wegener’s German expressionist films Der Golem (1915) and especially The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920). The Golem is a mystical Jewish creation who can be summoned by Kabbalistic magic; while he is generally used as a protector against persecution, but the creature spirals out of control and caused widespread destruction. Radu Molasar likewise saves the historian’s daugther, Eva (Alberta Watson), from being raped by two Nazis—also an all too common occurence during WWII. While the original silent film Golem serves as a sort of gestalt—symbolic of the lives of all Jews in the Prague ghetto, where the film is set—in The Keep, Radu’s awakening seems to drive the local inhabitants mad. In an unexpected twist, Wörmann declares that the creature’s evil and violence is a reflection of Nazi deeds.
The Keep is an undeniably strange beast, one that has slipped under the radar for many years. This US-UK co-production was beset by a number of difficulties, including extensive re-shoots, the death of original effects supervisor Wally Veevers, and Mann not being able to make up his mind over certain script details and visual design. He particularly struggled with how to portray Radu Molasar. The creature, which at first just appears as clouds or mist, is sadly an example of how rapidly effects dated themselves during this period (Krull, I’m also looking at you). In general, the visual effects and cinematography is experimental, but with a distinctly ‘80s vibe that would be shared by both Miami Vice and Manhunter, albeit in different ways. This is something I associate with the Michael Mann’s best work, even Heat (1995), but it provides a jarring contrast with the WWII setting.
Probably the main issue with The Keep—much like David Fincher’s equally fascinating but troubled Alien 3 (1992)—stems from studio interference. Paramount allegedly cut a three and a hour film down to 90 minutes, so continuity is completely out the window—though in their defense, Mann constantly reshot parts of the film and shot several different ending sequences (in my ultimate fantasy release that will never actually see the light of day, we get a series of endings tacked on as in the 1985 mystery-comedy Clue). After the first 20 or so minutes, where the Nazis arrive at the fortress and of course awaken the monster, there’s a lot that doesn’t make much sense, such as an abrupt cut to the awakening of Scott Glenn’s character, Glaeken, a supernatural being who must fight Radu Molasar. His romance with Eva, the scholar’s daughter, happens suddenly and the film’s original happy ending, in which the lovers are reunited, was strangely excised by the studio.
With that said, The Keep has plenty of thrilling and wonderfully cult moments thanks to an all-star cast that includes Scott Glenn, Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, and Ian McKellen—all of whom speak with different accents, much like The Hunt for Red October (1990), making one long for the kind of overdubbing found in Italian genre cinema. Possibly the best part of The Keep, though, is the excellent, moody score from Tangerine Dream, who Mann previously worked with on Thief. It adds a powerful sense of atmosphere that makes it easy to forgive a number of the film’s flaws. And say what you will about The Keep, it is a fascinating exercise in which Mann stepped out of his comfort zone—the glossy, contemporary crime thriller—to make a period set horror film effectively about the horrors of war and the depths of human evil. Like Clive Barker’s Nightbreed (1990), another long and messy film cut down by the studio, The Keep can be thought of as as adult fairytale. It presents a universe where supernatural forces and real human horrors overlap, foreshadowing the Hellboy comic series—which it ostensibly influenced—by a decade.
Though it was released on both laserdisc and VHS, The Keep has bafflingly and notoriously been largely unavailable for home viewing—there are no DVD or Blu-ray releases. It occasionally pops up on streaming services like Amazon or Netflix, but—again, bafflingly—it is not always available streaming with the original Tangerine Dream soundtrack (something about rights issues). A documentary, A World War II Fairytale: The Making of Michael Mann’s The Keep, has allegedly been in the works for years, so perhaps the curse of Radu Molasar lives on, decades later. I do hope one day footage turns up of the concluding scenes where Radu murders every Nazi remaining in the keep and makes their heads explode.