The Beautiful Horror of Michael Mann’s The Keep

*contains spoilers

Director Michael Mann (1943-) is well known for his film Heat (1995) starring Al Pacino and Robert de Niro. The film is seen as so iconic, every minute of its well over two and a half hour running time has been picked to pieces – incredibly even minute by minute – in podcasts.

Director Michael Mann in front of the graffiti on the set of The Keep (1983)

A film that he seems to prefer to forget is his severely compromised The Keep from 1983.

Adapted from F. Paul Wilson’s (1946-) 1981 novel, it is the first of six books apparently called The Adversary Cycle. As a teen, someone gave me the book, since they thought it was so good, but of course you tend to ignore what is pushed upon you and so I didn’t read it.

The movie of The Keep was disowned by Wilson, who was so disturbed by the end product that he wrote a story about a writer putting a voodoo curse on a director for what he had done to one of his works.

The Keep poster

The Keep, however, is a cult movie for me even though the first time I saw it as a teenager, stoned with a mate, we thought it awful and laughed mercilessly at a character played by Robert Prosky (1930-2008 complications of heart surgery) and his dyed hair and beard. Prosky had also appeared in Mann’s previous feature, the also very good Thief (1981).

The ninety-odd minute cut that exists of The Keep is only the tip of the iceberg as Mann produced a 210-minute cut which never saw the light of day outside of test screenings. There is a possibility it still exists but lack of interest by Mann and the general public, along with legal issues, keeps even the shortened version difficult to see, especially in widescreen.

Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) trailer

It seems the three and a half hour version was also a compromise caused by the death at the beginning of post-production of visual effects supervisor Wally Veevers (1917-83 heart attack).

Wally Veevers

Apparently, this caused enormous problems for the finished product, as nobody knew what Veever’s vision for the movie was. So the original ending unknown in terms of its visual special effects, a new one had to be improvised.

Mann has said he had to do 250 shots of special effects after Veever’s death!

What is most striking about the movie is its visual composition, its effects at times and its aural and music soundtrack. The photography for a horror is both striking and iconic – it is even beautiful at times when the images and the music align.

Al Pacino in Mann’s Heat (1995). Is his work stylish but empty realism or beautiful?

The music that accompanies these images is by German electronica band Tangerine Dream, then at their peak. They had worked with Michael Mann a couple of years earlier on Thief, which stars James Caan and James Belushi.

It is problems with ownership of the music rights which seems to have interfered with the movie’s release over the years.

The film starts off in 1941, at the height of Nazi Germany’s power in Europe, with a garrison of German soldiers arriving at the Dinu Pass in the Carpathian Alps. It’s Dracula country. There they must fortify the pass where there is a mysterious keep or castle – some sort of giant tomb really – which fascinates the lower ranked soldiers, because it appears to be sealed with dozens of large silver crosses.

Mann on the right with the creature of The Keep.

“Are you ready to be rich?,” asks one soldier as they plunder a cross one night, pulling it from the wall of the keep, something which unwittingly unleashes what has been kept inside for centuries.

Yes, it’s a great start, with Tangerine Dream’s brooding music leading to the soldier being bitten in half, while his companion is literally blown to pieces.

Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980) is another beautiful horror movie to look at

German actor Jurgen Prochnow (1941-) is the good Nazi, if that is possible, who wants a transfer as the men he is in charge of start getting killed off one by one each night.

Jurgen Prochnow

This only provokes the arrival of the SS Death Corps, or some such charming group of people, led by Irish actor Gabriel Byrne (1950-) with a very Nazi haircut. He executes villagers immediately and will continue to do so until “the partisans” who are killing the soldiers are caught and killed.

That first piece by Tangarine Dream, which opens the movie, as the soldiers arrive sets the tone, while the piece used for the soldier’s plunder is even stronger.

I have it on good authority by some friends that the detail to uniform and Nazi equipment is very authentic.

The Keep was shot in Northern Wales and the village does have an other worldly feel, the extras look like isolated European types… but apparently the shoot was plagued by bad weather which held up production.

It would seem the film was damned from the start!

Tangerine Dream at their peak with Edgar Froese top right

Also in the cast, in one of his first starring roles is Gandalf himself Ian McKellen (1939-), who plays a Jewish professor who is recalled from the death camps so Byrne’s SS character can use him to decipher an ancient piece of graffiti which has been scrawled on the wall of the keep. He brings with him his daughter played by Alberta Watson (1955-2015 cancer), who is harassed by the soldiers one evening and almost raped….

Meanwhile with some of the most beautiful and stark electronic music I have heard, we are introduced in the islands of Greece to Scott Glenn’s (1939-) character, who travels by boat at night to the mainland where he has a psychic connection with what has escaped from the keep.

“Never touch the crosses,” the keeper of the keep had warned the Germans, sounding a little like Orson Welles at first.

Never touch the crosses!

Anyway, it’s too late now… and when Alberta is nearly raped, she is saved by some ghostly spectre, who carries her back to her father. Fascinating is a better word for this spectre, rather than ghostly or ghastly.

There is a chance this ghost, or whatever, is good, especially for Jews, but don’t bet your last Matzah ball on it!

Lest we forget Robert Prosky’s character – he with the dyed beard which had caused my friend and I so much hilarity. He is a priest in the village and his character probably made more sense in the longer cut, especially towards the end.

One of the more beautiful shots from The Keep

While many of the indoor scenes of the keep itself are dark and dank, Mann, along with British cinematographer Alex Thomson (1929-2007), have lensed some great stuff, from the striking of a match head and Prochnow’s blue eye all in extreme close up, to the first glimpse inside the keep itself where there is an epic kind of Stonehenge at its core from which rises the spirit in the form of a ball of light. Thomson was responsible for capturing the epic imagery of Excalibur (1981) and he has done a similar job here.

Can a horror movie be beautiful, or is it just slickness of the image?

The spirit of the keep as it manifests itself

Stylistically, Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), which was released the same year, is a beautifully shot movie and Mann is a sensitive director like Scott when it comes to an image and putting them all together. Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) is beautifully lit and executed along with his Inferno (1980). Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) is another that immediately comes to mind, while the more recent and damned The Neon Demon (2016) really can’t be denied for its beauty. Then there is the period piece and set production design of Neil Jordan’s A Company of Wolves (1984). Like that movie, The Keep’s production design, while not as striking, creates a Gothic setting which it uses to its full potential.

Alberta Watson and Scott Glenn are lovers whose affair is doomed

Then there is the ghost or spirit itself when it first appears with McKellen’s daughter in its grasp, it is in a fascinating reversal of smoke being sucked into its body. That is definitely a beautiful and majestic scene together with music and voice and sound effects.

Apparently, the way Tangerine Dream work is they never actually see the movie at all. They are told a scene and they would write an accompanying theme which, at the time would literally turn up in the post! I read in the liner notes of the re-released double CD of Tangerine Dream’s music for William Friedkin’s Sorcerer that some music actually got lost in the post!!

A rejuvenated McKellen

I find The Keep’s soundtrack superior to Sorcerer, not that there has been much of an official release over the years except for limited editions.

It is no wonder that Tangerine Dream is one of the favourites of Netflix’s Stranger Things’ composers Michael Stein and Kyle Dixon who form the synth band Survive.

Tangerine Dream which formed in Germany in 1967 still exist although founding member and only constant member Edgar Froese (1944-2015 pulmonary embolism) died several years ago. They were a prolific band with over 150 discs to their discography, including over 60 film scores – soundtracks such as the Stephen King based Firestarter (1984), the Kennedy conspiracy Flashpoint (1984) and Tom Cruise megaflop Legend (1985).

The Keep (1983) trailer

When the spirit of the keep appears in solid form it is some sort of creature made of muscle and sinew with glowing red eyes. It makes for a memorable monster.

The rest of the plot of The Keep includes McKellen’s character’s miracle cure from old age and arthritis from the touch of the spirit and his daughter’s sexual liaison with the Scott Glenn character.

Prosky in a scene not obvious in the cut version. There it appears he was drinking altar wine

It all leads to the inevitable climax, with Glenn carrying some sort of staff to which he attaches a talisman the spirit wants McKellen to take away from the keep… as it will set him totally free!

Byrne’s SS character fools himself momentarily that a cross will protect him – good man that he is! Not!! And the juices are sucked from his body much to the audience’s delight.

The demon had told McKellen earlier about the Nazis: “I will destroy them… I will consume their life!” And, yes, he does kill them all but he’s a tricky bugger and when he tells McKellen to kill his own daughter and take the talisman away… its all over! You can’t ask a man to kill his own daughter!!

Byrne will be destroyed, much to the audience’s delight! Beautiful!!

Already McKellen’s friend the priest has told him he can “burn in hell” for associating with the demon and overindulges in altar wine on his knees in the hope it will save them all.

There are other beautiful sequences, including when Glenn is ‘killed’ by Nazi machine gun fire, the bullet holes in him glowing green as he plummets into an abyss beside the keep, his body lying on a ledge.

But one of the last and most striking of the scenes, and best use of Tangerine Dream, comes with a choral sounding piece entitled Canzone, which wasn’t on the limited release soundtrack. This occurs when McKellen goes into the keep to recover the talisman. It is simply another wonderful sequence.

Note Tangerine Dream’s music in the Sorcerer (1977) trailer

If ever there is a full double compact disc release like Sorcerer, it’ll be great.

As for the three and a half hour version of the film, if it exists, maybe it will be too ponderous and boring with too much padding between the great sequences that do exist in the trimmed version… Everyone, or as many as possible, have to like this version first and want to keep their very own The Keep!

Another moment of beauty or not?! This scene isn’t in the cut version

To be sure, despite the uncertainty of its production, Mann’s compromised vision is more his vision than he first envisaged!! Is that why The Keep is so special? This concentration of horror and beauty is certainly not camp as I first suspected as a teenager but a meditation of darkness that has captured many special sequences one after another. How it must have looked on a big screen!

1 Comment

  1. alexandra

    How to get the 210 minute version?!?!?!? Will there ever be justice?


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