Michael Mann’s “lost” film, based on a novel by F. Paul Wilson, is famous for it’s Tangerine Dream score and generally little seen thanks to a lack of a DVD release, rare print screenings (of which I attended at the BFI upon which this review is based) and it being a critical and commercial flop on release in 1983. Yet, I have always harboured a fascination in seeing it thanks to the look from stills I’d seen, the cast and the intruiging plot.
A bunch of Nazis take up base in the titular keep embedded in the mountainside of a Romanian village, only to find something possibly more evil than them lurking inside. It’s kind of like the Ark-opening scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark stretched out for 90 minutes, but not at all actually when you come to think of it.
Many of the film’s problems can be attributed to its current state. While the print was unavoidably scratchy and the sound often dire, it’s the hackjob at the edit stage that makes much of the film incomprehensible. That’s not to say there aren’t poor choices elsewhere (the bizarre yankee accents of the Romanians, Alberta Watson’s mega-80’s hair, some very forced and clunky dialogue), but with the original cut apparently 3 hours long, it does feel like you’re skimming through a book rather than absorbing it. The film frequently turns two pages at once, leading to muddy character motivations, sketchy background information and bizarre jumps and developments. I don’t need all the answers from a film, but the way The Keep flowed, it seemed like they skipped the questions too. In fact, supposed hero Scott Glenn is largely superfluous to the whole film seemingly only present for a little impromptu soft-focus fornication, with the kind of double quick courting that’d make James Bond nervous, and ultimately to defeat the big bad at the end.
There is still an interesting film buried beneath. Jurgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellen (unconventional accent aside) are as solid as you’d expect, the Keep itself is awe-inspiring (care of production designer John Box, a talk on whom was given prior to the screening) and the visual effects and prosphetics are great too. And the film as a whole does have a weird atmosphere that leaves an unshakeable impression. But ultimately, it’s too muddled to be more than a cult curio. A remastered re-edited DVD release would be most welcome though.