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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkNdbJxZZiE.) 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!