Did you even know this movie existed? I sure as hell didn't. It was released prior to Mann's days working on Miami Vice, before he'd really made a major name for himself, and by every conceivable measure, it was a colossal failure. It made little in the way of money, was critically panned, and even the writer of the novel on which it is based, F. Paul Wilson, described it as "incomprehensible."
I'd agree with that assessment. However, incomprehensible as it may be, The Keep is one of the most fascinating failures I've watched in a good long while. There are myriad pieces of a great horror movie scattered throughout this film, and just as many confusing, bizarre elements that feel half-finished, completely unfinished, or inexplicably inserted. This whole movie feels like a gigantic push-pull between Mann and Paramount Pictures, and the resulting movie is simply bizarre.
The Keep's premise is an immediately intriguing one. Set during World War II in a remote Romanian village, the story is initially told from the perspective of a German commander played by the terribly underrated Jurgen Prochnow. His unit has been assigned to station themselves in this village, and guard the ancient, not-at-all-foreboding keep (a sort of castle, built into the wall of a mountain) that sits near it. The caretaker (an appropriately creepy William Morgan Sheppard) warns the soldiers not to sleep inside the keep, and flips the hell out when the soldiers start picking at the nickel-plated crosses that line the walls of the place. Seems like a good time for some kind of ancient evil to be unleashed, yeah?
Brock Lesnar. Initially existing in cloud form, he begins picking off Prochnow's soldiers one by one each night. Prochnow knows things aren't right, and requests a reassignment for his unit to another village. Instead, suspecting partisan activity, the Germans send in a special forces unit to "deal" with the villagers, one commanded by a very young and very insidious looking Gabriel Byrne. In a typical horror movie, this is where the monster vs. Nazis stuff would just continue to normally escalate until nearly everyone's dead, and Prochnow finds some connection between the evil at work here and the Nazis he works for, thus giving him the full moral turnaround. Let me make it abundantly clear that this is NOT a typical horror movie.
Instead, a number of new characters get folded into the mix, including an ailing Jewish scientist (a younger, but still old-looking Ian McKellen) and his daughter ( Alberta Watson, who eventually went on to star in a lot of La Femme Nikita episodes), who are plucked from a Nazi death camp to decipher a message written on the wall of the keep in an ancient language. In truth, his expertise is played up by a local priest who knows McKellen, in the hopes of getting him sprung from the camp and helping him escape. Things go sideways, however, when Molasar stops McKellen's daughter from being assaulted by a pair of Nazis, and offers to cure McKellen of his debilitating disease, provided McKellen is willing to do the monster's bidding and help it escape the keep.
Scott Glenn. He plays a character (no joke) named Glaeken Trismegestus. When we first encounter Glaeken, he's sitting on a boat somewhere in the Mediterranean, and is rudely awoken with glowing-eyed rage after Molasar is first released. We then only see pepperings of him traveling from Greece to Romania, with little more than the basic understanding that he knows something is up, and his eyes are weird.
It is at this point that The Keep goes from being a kind of intriguing horror movie to a complete and utter mess. By the time Glaeken arrives in the village and randomly shows up in Watson's hotel room for no good reason, the movie starts skipping around plot and back story elements with such capriciousness that you get the impression there's an entire section of this movie missing. Who the hell is Glaeken? What is his specific relation to the monster? Why is he able to start making sweet, muscular love to Watson within minutes of appearing in her life? What is even happening in the last half hour of all this craziness? No answers of any satisfaction are given.
All of that makes a certain amount of sense when you go in with the knowledge that Mann's original cut of the movie was three and a half hours long. Undoubtedly Paramount balked at the notion of releasing such a gigantic, sprawling movie in place of a tighter, more accessible horror flick. However, in this case "tighter" turned into "nonsensical." That three and a half hours turned into a 95 minute run time. So, in case you're wondering why Prochnow's character is all but tossed aside in the last third of the movie, why we never see or hear from the keep's caretaker beyond the opening scene, and why Glaeken's presence is so entirely baffling, that's why. It's like this movie has a beginning, an ending, with parts of a middle. With so much on the cutting room floor, there isn't enough left in the movie to explain the fundamental question of, "Why is anything happening?"
Still, as far off the rails as the story flies, The Keep is still a fascinating work, especially if you are a fan of Mann's catalog. A lot of early elements of his trademark style are on display here, albeit in somewhat unchecked and ludicrous fashion. Watching The Keep, and knowing how Mann's career went from there, you get the impression that his brain is permanently infected with needless slow-motion and endless keyboard solos.
this, but with Nazis. Add in the mixture of long, drawn-out slow motion shots with hasty, awkward story edits, and you've got a deeply feverish experience on your hands.
It's not all keytars and crazed editing, thankfully. In the early goings, Mann does create a nice sense of brooding, uncomfortable atmosphere, and as the bodies start stacking, the violence and death on display actually includes some of the creepiest practical effects I've seen from any movie of the era. It's just a shame that the need for truncation ultimately won out over the need to have The Keep make some measure of sense. This is not a good movie, but it's a movie I think is worth watching if you dig the rest of Mann's filmography, and/or want to understand the key importance of combining good story editing and sensible brevity. Without those things, you end up with the ton of wasted potential that is The Keep.