"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Michael Mann Blogathon: The Keep

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is a part of the Michael Mann Blogathon going on over at the Seeti Maar - Diary of a Movie Lover blog. If you get a chance, check it out as there are all kinds of amazing contributions so far.

Let’s get this out of the way – The Keep (1983) is not a good film. It is, at times, an interesting one that has its inspired moments, but it is a narrative mess with lackluster performances. It is the equivalent of David Lynch’s Dune (1984) – a big budget folly beset by production problems and an uncaring studio that butchered the film before its release. And like Lynch, the experience was so painful for Michael Mann that he has never revisited it since. It’s all George Lucas’ fault. The success of Star Wars (1977) motivated all kinds of directors to dabble in the science fiction, horror and fantasy genres. For example, in the year The Keep was released, Peter Yates directed Krull, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg tackled Stephen King adaptations with Christine and The Dead Zone, respectively, Tony Scott’s directorial debut was the gothic vampire tale The Hunger, and there was also Something Wicked This Way Comes. These films, however, were overshadowed by the third installment of the Star Wars trilogy, Return of the Jedi, which dominated the box office.

After Thief (1981), Mann was offered all kinds of urban crime films. He was not interested in repeating himself and wanted, instead, to do something like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude that would allow him to make a film that was “non-realistic and create the reality.” He worked briefly on the screenplay for Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983) but left that project to make The Keep, an adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s novel about a mysterious force within a Nazi fortress. The film begins with a transition from a black screen to blue sky and then pans down to the action. Mann would do the exact same thing at the beginning of Manhunter (1986) three years later. As is typical with the beginning of a Mann film, the opening sequence is devoid of dialogue. A convoy of trucks filled with Nazi soldiers drive through desolate countryside. They arrive at a small village in the Dinu Pass in the Carpathian Alps in Romania circa 1941. The town’s inhabitants look at these intruders suspiciously. Out of the fog, the convoy arrives at the Keep, which is to be their new base of operations. The commanding officer, Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) proudly proclaims to a subordinate, “Now we are the masters of the world. Doesn’t that enthrall you?” The irony of this statement is that it is said before the Nazis invaded Russia and failed.

The Keep is a massive, imposing structure. Mann used vintage arc lamps from the 1920s and 1930s to get “a certain kind of hard blue shaft of light coming through all the openings in the keep.” The village outside of the Keep was shot with very bright light and in white in order to represent innocence. However, something is not quite right and this is symbolized by the fact that none of the rooftops are symmetrical. In contrast, everything inside the Keep is dark. Mann said, “We exposed for the highlight and let all the shadows go. Instead of a flood or a wash of light, there are very defined shafts of light. It’s only in those shafts that we can see things.”

Father Fanescu (Robert Prosky) is the caretaker of the Keep and warns Woermann that he and his men should not stay inside the structure because bad dreams drive out people who attempt to stay too long. Naturally, Woermann scoffs at such notions. He is an overconfident antagonist like Leo in Thief, Waingro in Heat (1995) and Thomas Sanderford in The Insider (1999). Fanescu also warns them never to touch the many metal crosses embedded in the walls. Of course, two greedy soldiers on night watch try to pry one out, believing that it hides some kind of treasure. In doing so, they uncover the vast interior of the Keep and a powerful force that kills them. They have unknowingly awakened a being known as Molasar (Michael Carter). This even awakens a man by the name of Glaeken (Scott Glenn) who lives in Greece. He quickly packs his things and goes to Romania. This man is a loner, much like other Mann protagonists. He is a man of few words, driven by intensely personal reasons to do what he does.

Reinforcements arrive led by a vicious officer, Major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) who starts killing villagers in retaliation for the mysterious deaths of five soldiers. He finds inscriptions on a wall in a language that none of them can decipher but Fanescu knows of a scholar who can – Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen). He and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are summoned from a concentration camp. When two soldiers try to rape Eva, they are eradicated by Molasar and enveloped by smoke. In comparison to the cold, calculated Kaempffer, Woermann seems much more reasonable. He is smart enough to fear this unknown force and has enough compassion to send Eva to the local inn. Kaempffer is weak of mind, like Freddie Lounds in Manhunter and Van Zandt in Heat. Kaempffer thinks too rationally and deludes himself into believing that he is in control.

For Molasar, the more it kills the more of a physical presence it has. It makes a deal with Dr. Cuza that if he carries out the talisman that keeps it imprisoned in the Keep, Molasar will kill all of the soldiers. However, Glaeken knows that if Molasar is released, it will destroy the world. Glaeken is not just a traveler, as he describes himself, but also watches over the Keep and makes sure that Molasar does not get out.

As the film builds towards its climax, Woermann confronts Kaempffer and tries to appeal to his conscience one more time:

“All that we are is coming out, here in this Keep. And what truth do you see, what are you discovering about yourself, Kaempffer? I murder all these people. Therefore I must be powerful. Smash them down because only that raises you up. It’s a psychotic fantasy to escape the weakness and disease you sense in the core of your soul ... You have released the foulest that dwells in all men’s minds. You have infected millions with your twisted fantasies. And formed millions of diseased mentalities that worship your twisted cross.”

This is not only an indictment of the Nazi philosophy but also the godlike mentality alluded to by Hannibal Lecktor to Will Graham in Manhunter. Dr. Cuza has become corrupted by power like those he hates – the Nazis. When Molasar heals him of his diseased state, he loses sight of what is good and evil.

Producers Gene Kirkwood and Howard W. Koch, Jr. optioned F. Paul Wilson’s book for Paramount. Not surprisingly, Mann was not interested in a straightforward adaptation. He did not want to make a traditional horror film. As he said in an interview at the time, “What it is overall is very dreamy, very magical, and intensely emotional.” Mann admired fairy tales and was drawn to Wilson’s best-selling novel as a way to make a fairy tale movie for adults.

The filmmaker did not use Wilson’s book as his starting point, but it was actually a meeting with Otto Skorzeny in 1969. Skorzeny was a former member of the S.S. and one of World War II’s most successful commandos. He led the raid that rescued Benito Mussolini from Italy in 1943. At Nuremberg, Skorzeny successfully defended himself and was acquitted. After the war, he ran a mercenary operation out of Spain. Mann was fascinated by Skorzeny’s psychology. Mann said in an interview that “the overt politics interest me less than the states of mind: the specific kinds of aberration that explain why a lower middle-class bourgeois in Munich would be attracted to the Waffen SS in 1933.”

Mann also read The Walter Langdon Report, a document commissioned by the Office of Strategic Services to psychoanalyze Adolph Hitler. Walter Langdon was a New York doctor who had talked to many people that knew the dictator before the war. This portrait of Hitler and how he reflected the psychosis of whole nation fascinated Mann. Another primary influence on the film was Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which posits the theory that fairy tales were complex morality fables. Bettelheim argues that myths have clearly defined heroes and usually end in tragedy, while fairy tales were universal with happy endings. It goes on to propose the theory that most enduring children’s stories do not teach moral messages as fables do but deal with action and horror in a way that allows children to deal with real world horror over time.

Mann first scouted locations in Romania but was unable to find a mountain pass of black rock in Pyrenees or the Alps. He then asked experts at a nearby university to use their geology computer to help him find the location he wanted. With the help of production designer John Box, Mann found an abandoned slate quarry in Wales. The quarry was 150 feet deep and a lift or a crane had to take people in and out. Cinematographer Alex Thomson placed his lights on cherry pickers around the edge of the quarry and at one point 80 miles per hour winds threatened to knock the lights in.

Mann first wrote the screenplay and then made additional changes while shooting the film. “Now the words are plastic, flexible,” Mann remarked in an interview at the time. He constantly rewrote dialogue before shooting which frustrated his actors. Two days before a scene was shot the actors would get new pages. Then, a day before they got additional new pages. Mann storyboarded the entire film only to get on the set and realize that the lighting was different and so he threw them out, opting instead to work on a more instinctual level. On the set, Mann listened to the music of Tangerine Dream and Laurie Anderson. He was particularly taken with Anderson’s vocal stylings and wanted Glenn to speak like she does in her songs.

By certain accounts, the shoot was a particularly grueling one. The crew worked 16-18 hour days in cold, rainy weather. In particular, make-up artist Nick Maley remembers that he had to change make-up effects three times in one week. He claimed that Mann did not listen to more experienced crew members and that eight of them suffered nervous breakdowns as a result of the film’s demanding schedule. Maley also claims that he was exhausted a lot of the time from the miscommunication he experienced with Mann over prosthetics for Glaeken. Six weeks into filming, Mann changed the color of Molasar’s final costume, which meant some scenes had to be re-shot.

Mann described Molasar as the essence of “just sheer power, and the appeal of power, and the worship of power, a belief in power, a seduction of power.” This is a description that could easily apply to future Mann antagonists, Francis Dollarhyde and Hannibal Lecktor in Manhunter. Mike Carter played Molasar and spoke highly of Mann: “His direction was simple and clear—always the best. The physical presentation of Molasar was always carefully worked out. The way in which I played Molasar was pretty much my decision. Obviously he would have changed things if he didn’t like it.” However, Carter was not blind to the problems that Mann faced on the film: “We went over budget and over schedule, but he was trying to make a particular kind of film, almost a German Expressionist movie, and I’m not surprised it was as long and expensive as it was. It needed to be a big-budget movie.”

There was a six-month delay because of the death of special effects expert, Wally Veevers two weeks into post-production, forcing Mann to rethink the film’s effects after the cast and crew had departed. Without Veevers to provide the needed opticals for Molasar, the creature resembled the Michelin Man as opposed to an ominous force of evil. To make matters worse, Veevers had not made any storyboards for his vision of the movie and no one knew his methods. The production went over schedule by 22 weeks and tens of millions of dollars.

When it came to the finale, Mann chose between two different endings. Glaeken versus Molasar in the dark cave of the Keep or on its summit. The director went with the former but was forced to scale it down. Originally, he had wanted a more visually elaborate, ending with Glaeken fighting Molasar with a giant laser coming from the Keep that evolved into something akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). After Veever’s death, Paramount did not give Mann enough money to finish the film and he had to abandon certain sequences. French artist Enki Bilal was brought in to help design Molasar. He traveled to Shepperton Studios five or six times and felt that the film was ruined during the editing process. Special effects make-up artist Bob Keen felt that one of the biggest problems was the long, grueling shoot and that by the end of it a lot of the crew members had left.

The current version of the film runs 90 minutes but rumors say that the rough cut ran over two hours. The Keep was released on December 16, 1983 in 508 theaters, grossing $1 million in its opening weekend. It went on to make $4.2 million in the United States and was a commercial and critical failure. In his review for Time magazine, Richard Corliss wrote, “It boasts some pictures as pretty as any to be seen on a gallery wall, and, in narrative terms, it is a mess.” Vincent Canby, in his review for The New York Times, wrote, “The movie makes no sense as either melodrama or metaphysics, so that its expensive special effects go up in smoke. Literally ... At the screening I saw, the film's soundtrack, as stuffed with talk as with ominous sounds and music by Tangerine Dream, was so sibilant that I longed to stuff cotton in my ears or, at least, to hear a character who lisped.” At the time, Mann felt that The Keep was “emotionally deeper because it tries to get at the way you think and feel in the way dreams work.” However, after many years had passed, Mann admitted, “The Keep was really hard because I did something I swore I’d never do again. And that is that I went into pre-production without a completed screenplay.”

Author F. Paul Wilson joined in on the critical bashing of Mann’s film and dispelled the rumor that it might have been the victim of studio interference. “The film followed his (bad) script pretty faithfully. He simply decided that he wouldn’t mention the word ‘vampire,’ anywhere in the film. Of course, that’s the major red herring in the story.” Wilson felt that Mann did not understand the novel or how to adapt it. “He did not build character. He did not tell a coherent story. When I read the script, I wrote to him and I pointed out all of this to him in a very gentle, non ego trampling way, I thought. But he ignored me.” To put it mildly, Wilson was not happy with Mann’s film as he commented in an interview, “the dialogue was wooden, dumb, phony and stupid. And the direction, all those pregnant pauses ... And I would have chucked that stupid looking monstrosity that passed for Molasar. What a joke!” However, like what happened to Lynch after the soul-crushing failure of Dune, Mann went back to familiar subject matter and ended up making one of the best films of his career, Manhunter. I admire Mann’s ambition to tackle a new genre for him at the time but he was clearly out of his depth and it shows in the final film. Since The Keep he has wisely stuck to his strengths – urban crime films and historical biopics.

Also, check out this excellent analysis of the film over at the Wonders in the Dark blog and this comprehensive fan site.


  1. Excellent look at this troubled film, J.D. I actually saw this in its theatrical release (and later VHS tape). Some of its visuals are truly mesmerizing, but its storytelling is a mess (I'd read F. Paul Wilson's book and his criticisms were valid). You presented some fascinating back-story in your piece. I didn't know Mann met and looked at S.S. commando Otto Skorzeny as a starting point for the film. IIRC, Skorzeny was the basis of Jack Higgins' book, and later John Sturges film adaptation, THE EAGLE HAS LANDED.

    I think your comparison with Lynch's DUNE adaptation is quite apt. Now, if only the studio would release it to disc (or Blu-ray Disc) like what's been done with DUNE, it would be an intriguing disc to own (especially for Mann aficionados) -- hell, I'd buy it the first day it was available. Of course, the compelling question about this film is this: If Michael Mann hadn't made this spectacular flop, would MANHUNTER or his later crime classics have come to pass? I can't believe his experience with THE KEEP has not been a substantial influence on his career. I mean, don't we learn more from our failures than our successes?

    Thanks very much for this, J.D. This was a fantastic read!

  2. I'm going to watch this this weekend (it's on Netflix streaming). I've tweeted this out to my followers. I shall return with thoughts!

  3. @ Will - Cool! I forgot that many hard-to-get films (on disc) are being offered via Netflix streaming. It's now in my Instant Queue. Thanks, Will!

  4. First, J.D., this is a very well-written piece: informative and entertaining. Truly indicative of how fine a writer you are.

    As for The Keep, I agree, it is not a good movie. I found this quote the most intriguing:

    "Producers Gene Kirkwood and Howard W. Koch, Jr. optioned F. Paul Wilson’s book for Paramount. Not surprisingly, Mann was not interested in a straightforward adaptation. He did not want to make a traditional horror film. As he said in an interview at the time, “What it is overall is very dreamy, very magical, and intensely emotional.” Mann admired fairy tales and was drawn to Wilson’s best-selling novel as a way to make a fairy tale movie for adults."

    I read Wilson's novel within the last couple of years; and surprisingly, it would have made an excellent traditional horror film. Where the film and the novel greatly differ is exactly where the finished film falters. This is just my opinion, of course.

    Anyway, always enjoy reading your stuff, J.D., and have a great weekend.

  5. le0pard13:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend. Always appreciated. THE KEEP is definitely a case of style over substance. I can't totally dismiss it because, as you point out, there are some truly stunning visuals contained within it.

    Thanks for that tidbit of info on Skorzeny. I did not know that.

    Like you, I would love for Paramount to give THE KEEP a decent DVD release - hell, even if they can't get Mann's participation which I'm wondering is maybe what's holding it up. Or they figure that there is very little audience to make it worth their while? Who knows...

    I also agree with about the influence of the failure of THE KEEP on Mann's career. Right afterwards, he retreated to TV and produced MIAMI VICE and CRIME STORY and then came back to film with MANHUNTER. Obviously, returning back to familiar subject matter revitalized him.


    Sounds good. I look forward to your thoughts on this film.

    Hans A.:

    Thank you for the compliments. I really do appreciate it and you stopping by and leaving such great comments.

    It has been ages since I've read Wilson's novel. I really do need to give it another read. I do agree with you on the film's failures come from where it diverges from the novel.

  6. I saw this one many years ago, I seem to remember enjoying it because it was so different then any other film I'd seen. I also enjoyed the atmosphere, and the place it was shot.

    I was not the film buff I am know, so I guess seeing it now would be a whole different experience.

    I didnt know it was such a troubled shoot! Now I feel like seeing this one again to re-asses the whole film. Thanks for the detailed and insightful review man, you really crammed it with tons of useful information on the film. Last I checked it had not been released on to DVD or Blue Ray (I could be wrong) I guess the studio still holds a grudge over this one being such a huge failure at the box office.

  7. Excellent, comprehensive review, JD. Been many years since I read the novel and viewed the film, but your thoughts make me yearn for a DVD release. I've often wondered if time will be kinder to The Keep when I next see it. Possibly not, but I learnt a whole lot when reading your thoughts on this.

  8. I saw "The Keep" a few months ago and would mildly disagree with you; I don't think it's a great movie or even a very good movie, but I do think it's good. That's a relative term of course, and almost entirely based on style, not substance. Wilson is exactly right in that Mann did not build character. It feels that characters didn't grow or change internally at all, only occasionally did they change externally.

    I took Prochnow's dialogue at the beginning to be sarcasm rather than pride. Perhaps I was overthinking things in an attempt to give the film more sense.

    Coincidentally, I just saw "Manhunter" last night. Mann's style was immediately recognizable, but there was depth to the "pregnant pauses" that were just empty in "The Keep." Character was built, the story was coherent even though it wasn't completely fleshed out in some spots. If the kind of film making Mann did in "Manhunter" was used on "The Keep", I can only imagine what a fascinating film it would have been.

  9. JD

    Sure sounds interesting as films go.

    I remember that vivid studio poster art for the film from back in the day. It's so imposing.

    Someday I will see it.

    I love the cast. I'm a huge fan of Jurgen Prochnow ever since Das Boot.

    Anyway, it's an interesting looking film especially for Mann.

    Thorough and detailed as always JD!

  10. The Film Connoisseur:

    I agree that the atmosphere of this film is pretty cool. I love the visual look of it as well - it's just too bad it is so uneven on every other level.

    Thanks for the kind words. The film had a pretty fascinating production history and when you realize how troubled it was, the end result is not surprising. I can see why the studio has shown no interest in releasing it on DVD as it did't make much money back in the day and probably wouldn't make much now.

    Steve Langton:

    Thanks for stopping by, my friend.

    I will say this about the film. The more times I watch it, the less the flaws look glaring and I kind of surrender to what Mann was trying to do.


    I guess my views of this film are shaped by seeing films like MANHUNTER and THIEF beforehand and THE KEEP pales in comparison. It really is a major letdown. That benig said, there is some interesting stuff going on and it is definitely a case of style over substance as you said.

    I totally agree with you re: MANHUNTER. You could tell that Mann was much more confident with that film, back on familiar turf and it shows. Also, I think there was a lot less studio interference on that one and he was left to do his own thing. As for THE KEEP, I would still love to see a longer cut or at least a collection of deleted scenes with commentary by Mann. Maybe some day.

    The Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    I dig Prochnow as well - he was so eerily effective in IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS. Thanks for stoppin by.

  11. Interesting review. I would agree that "The Keep" was not very good, but what I find most remarkable is that although I suppose I knew it was his, I don't really even think of it as Mann's film! He's created such a strong identity through his body of work, that this one slipped right out of mind. Still, as you point out there are some worthwhile moments that certainly add to our understanding of the director. What strange times those were!

  12. Excellent look,indeed.
    I still like "The Keep" and i even think that it is a fascinating, unique film, despite the flaws...the first half (opening scene, the silver cross removal scene, Molasar saving Eva from a rape...) is especially impressive, thanks to the wonderful visuals (cinematography, locations and Mann's stunning use of 2:35 Cinemascope)...and a really cool Tangerine Dream soundtrack, of course!

  13. Brent:

    Yeah, it does not feel like a Mann film. Some of the look of the film would permeate into MANHUNTER but it is definitely out of sorts with the rest of Mann's films.


    Thank you for the kind words. I would agree that the first half of THE KEEP is definitely stronger than the second half. I like how Mann sets everything up and the est. shots of the Keep are quite effective. And yes, you certainly can't go wrong with Tangerine Dream's atmospheric score - probably the best thing about the film!

  14. A great writeup! The idea that it's Michael Mann's DUNE is a fitting one, but to tell the truth, I like THE KEEP far more than the aforementioned Lynch disaster. Sure, it's a dragging, lurching, and often tedious mess, but particular scenes- like the removal of the silver cross by the two Nazi guards as Tangerine Dream's 'Logos (Blue)' surges in the background- possess a swirling, poetic beauty that is rarely duplicated by Mann, or by anybody else.

  15. Sean Gill:

    You make a good argument but I stil prefer DUNE if only for the parade of grotesque imagery that Lynch managed to sneak into a PG film. I could do without the Toto soundtrack 'tis true but you've got the lovely Virginia Madsen, Kenneth McMillan as a disgusting Lynchian psycho, Patrick Stewart acting all stiff and loads of Lynch alumni like Jack Nance, Brad Dourif (who steals every scene he's in), Dean Stockwell, Kyle MacLachlan, etc. That tips the scales for me.

  16. Hi J.D.

    A great retrospective of The Keep.

    I still find the film entrancing, even mesmerizing.

    I think Mann accomplished a lot in terms of giving the movie a hypnotic cinematic style, even if the narrative content sometimes doesn't work.

    I know it's not the book, but movies are a different art form entirely, and I think Mann found his own voice here; between his expressive visualizations and the great score by Tangerine Dream.

    I still wince when I see the horrible monster suit in the film's climax, but I also admire Mann for -- in the age of slasher films -- attempting to revive the supernatural or gothic horror.

    There are some evocative shots in The Keep (like the pull-back of the cavern interior...) that really capture a sense of dread and terror.

    Thank you for an intelligent look back at a film that is better than the reputation suggests.

    John Kenneth Muir

  17. Good to see some love for Lynch's DUNE, I love it for the same reasons you mentioned above, and because it's a solid adaptation of the book. Yeah it left some things out, and it added others, but in essense it sticks pretty closely to Herberts novel.

    Plus, you gotta love those production values!

  18. John Kenneth Muir:

    I agree that the film version of a book really has to survive on its own but it should, at least, capture the spirit of the book or why do it at all? I guess you argue over how much Mann diverged from the source material and I certainly can't fault him for making it his own. I just think he wasn't as successful translating it to the big screen like he was with MANHUNTER which diverges quite a bit from RED DRAGON but does so in a way that still stays true to the novel.

    And you're right about how admirable it was for Mann to go against the popular trend at the time of slasher films and try to revive the gothic, supernatural horror film. Certainly an A for effort.

    Thanks for your great observations.

    The Film Connoisseur:

    Yes, the production values for DUNE are something else. It's a film I can kind of tune the narrative mess that it is and just enjoy the visual spectacle.

  19. This was excellent work JD. I think it might be one of your best reviews period.

    I have some affection for The Keep, I mean it falls apart pretty spectacularly in the last half hour, what with the angel sex and all.

    But the core story is always interesting, Mann's style is beautiful, and I LOVE the miniature work in the film.

  20. Bryce Wilson:

    Thank you for the kind words, my friend.

    I agree with you about the film's collapse in the last half hour and one wonders if that's where all the production problems hurt it the most.

    And the miniature work is quite nice. Agreed.

  21. The Keep is far better than Dune and I believe its main flaw is the hatchet job done on the film by the studio. If only Mann would see sense and give us a longer edit of the film, Im sure that what we would see would be a far better version of the film! F.Paul Wilsons commentary on the film is wholly unfair, cynical, and quite bitter at times. However, Mann presented moviegoers with a far more interesting experience than Wilson did with his book. Mann should have been let finish the film because the end result would be looked upon now as a classic.

  22. Anon:

    I agree with you re: Mann revisiting this film. I get the feeling, like Lynch with DUNE, the experience of making it was so painful that it still lingers and he seems to have no desire to revisit it. As far as Wilson's comments on the film, I get the feeling that they are more a personal attack on Mann himself because he felt slighted by the filmmaker, which is certainly understandable. Plus, he has an obvious bias. Hopefully, the really solid transfer of the film that is on Netflix is a hint that we might finally see this get a DVD release.