Winter of '83: The Keep -

Winter of '83 Review

Mania Grade: D+

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  • Rated: R
  • Starring: Scott Glenn, Ian McKellen, Alberta Watson, Gabriel Byrne
  • Written By: F. Paul Wilson (novel), Michael Mann (screenplay)
  • Directed By: Michael Mann
  • Original Year of Release: 1983
  • Studio: Paramount PIctures
  • Run Time: 96 min
  • Series:

Winter of '83: The Keep

"Obey me! Or I will return you to the diseased state I found you in!"

By Rob Vaux     December 16, 2013

The Keep (1983)
© Paramount Pictures

 Some actors shouldn’t appear in certain genres. Case in point: The Oklahoma Kid, a 1939 Western starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. (Here’s the trailer if you want a laugh: The same can be said of directors, which is the only reason I can imagine that a movie like The Keep fails as badly as it does.  Great concept, great cast, stellar production values, and yet somehow Michael Mann – pound for pound one of the best filmmakers in the game – just can’t bring it together.

Certainly, the source material is a ripe slice of pulp, but horror masterpieces have come from such material. In 1941, Nazis arrive to take possession of a Carpathian castle, only to discover that the keep was built to keep something in instead of out. Soon enough, that “something” escapes its prison, forcing the Nazis to call upon a Jewish professor (Ian McKellan) to deduce who or what it is. Surprisingly enough, he’s not so inclined to help them, preferring to cut a deal with the supernatural menace and watch the Third Reich crumble (along with the rest of the world) when it finally gets out.

Seriously, what’s not to like about this situation? We have a cool spooky castle, tons of Nazi “victims” just begging to die, and a moral conundrum that handily invokes the ancient myth of the Golem applied to Holocaust-era horrors. This should be a slam dunk. And yet none of the pieces quite fit, leaving a near-great movie that falls a long way after shooting for the moon and missing.

Sadly, most of the blame for that lies with Mann, whose penchant for urban atmosphere can’t capture the menace that the story requires. The keep itself looks gorgeous, as does the Romanian village beneath it and the lovely foggy roads leading up to it. He sticks in a whole lot of pretty details like the nickel crosses embedded in the wall that glow when supernatural mayhem gets rolling. The cast does reasonably well despite a few boners (you can call Gabriel Byrne an SS officer all you like, Mr. Movie, but his brogue isn’t just going away on your say-so), and the brief running time neatly deflects the director’s occasional exercises in self-importance.

None of that, however, translates to scares, which The Keep attempts on a distressingly regular basis. It delivers scenes intended to jolt and spook, but that drop with a thud that beggars belief sometimes. The same holds true with the film’s larger moralizing. It grapples with terrific questions about the lesser evil and the nature of revenge, but it all comes out in wet ungainly heaps, devoid of subtlety and unable to overcome the production design to make genuine human contact with us.

That’s compounded by some a few flat-out disasters, like tasking Tangerine Dream to write the score. (I’m fond of their work in other films but 80s techno and Gothic horror are two great tastes that most definitely do not taste great together.) It dates The Keep badly, as well as ensuring that nothing the film hopes to do with its other elements can sufficiently distract us from that fact. That, coupled with Mann’s too-sleek missteps, ensure that the good ideas at the heart of this thing die a slow and ugly death onscreen. As a filmmaker, Mann was still testing himself here, growing and progressing beyond what he thought capable. In that context, the film becomes an interesting footnote; the director certainly applied what he learned to future efforts, since he never strayed into horror filmmaking again. That doesn’t make The Keep any easier to watch, however, or excuse its tragic waste of a golden opportunity.

This is officially the last entry in our 30-year flashback to 1983. But don’t worry: we’ll be back for the Spring of ’84 in just a few months. 1984 was a big year in the movies, featuring bone-fide classics across a wide array of genres. So strap on your proton pack and make sure you call him Dr. Jones, doll. It’s going to be one heck of a look back!


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Walker 12/16/2013 8:12:19 PM

The Keep, what a wonderous mess.  I am sorry, but the Tangerine Dream soundtrack is one of the best things about that movie (just as their soundtrack is one of the highlights of Legend).  The movie has some excellent set pieces that, together with the soundtrack, act as great music videos.

The true problem with the film is a lack of coherency.  It has marvelous set pieces, but the narrative is too fast and disjointed to make any sense.  Unless you have read Paul Wilson's novel, it is impossible to follow what is going on.

SinisterPryde 12/17/2013 12:04:44 AM

I haven't thought about this movie in a long time.  To be honest, I had nearly forgotten it even existed.  Still, I passed more than one rainy summer day on this one.  

Dazzler 12/17/2013 3:39:23 AM

Don't show a trailer to the Keep or anything.  Never saw it and could be convienced.  Usually I watch anything with Nazi's getting killed. 

Dazzler 12/17/2013 3:40:54 AM

Off topic sidebar, that Tom Cruise movie with the assassination attempt on Hitler could have been better if they shown all the attempts, I guess there was quite a few, I would have gone in that direction instead of trying to show just one.  

fenngibbon 12/17/2013 3:44:13 AM

 Actually, I think the disparate parts kind of makes the movie work by giving it a weird vibe (then again, I often like movies that give modern music soundtracks to period pieces).  


It's not a great movie, because it gets increasingly incoherent as it goes along (didn't it turn out that they were aliens or something like that?), and I wouldn't even call it a good movie.  But I wouldn't call it a bad movie, either (and definitely not a D movie).  It is what I would call a weekend afternoon movie.  

Walker 12/17/2013 5:50:17 AM

 Not aliens. A demon/vampire. Not that you could have figured that out from the movie.

VermithraxPejorative 12/17/2013 6:45:14 AM

I am actualy one of those that likes this movie and would love to see it officially released on DVD, not some hack job done by someone as we see now.

I would NOT give it a D Plus, but rather more in the line of B Minus, simply because it IS so strange!

mellowdoux 12/17/2013 10:03:35 AM

 I think Walker said it best.
It issue is... it's incoherent.

invisioner 12/17/2013 11:09:21 AM

 what is really funny, is the several versions of the ending were shown in different theaters, and I think even a reshoot after airing also happened. Several editing mishaps added to the train wreck. I loved the book, one of the first adult novels I read as a kid. the movie was a trippy headache. its too bad.

dojen1 12/17/2013 5:37:45 PM

For those who saw this: was it just me or did the Big Bad seem like his design was ripped of from Jack Kirby's Darkseid character in DC Comics..? Anyone..?

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