Friday, April 23, 2021

The Keep, at the Mahoning

Back in December 1983, Hollywood studios started taking flack for releasing mostly R-rated films during the holiday season. That is when they stuffed audiences' stockings with Scarface, Christine, Gorky Park, Sudden Impact, and Uncommon Valor. This was also part of that ill-considered bout of scheduling, but timing was always a problem for Michael Mann’s second film. Not particularly faithfully adapted from F. Paul Wilson’s bestselling novel, Mann’s The Keep fittingly screens tonight as part of an 80’s horror night at the Mahoning Drive-In (if you don’t know who they are, check out the documentary, At the Drive-In).

The Keep became part of Wilson’s loosely connected “Adversary Cycle,” but when the film was optioned, it was one of the biggest new horror novels not written by Stephen King. Sadly, it probably qualifies as a “cursed film,” because special effects supervisor Wally Veevers died during post (with nobody entirely understanding what he had planned) and then the studio gave Mann’s two-hour-plus cut the Harvey Scissorhands treatment. It could have been different and probably better, but what survives is still definitely interesting.

It is 1941, in the Romanian mountains, while the Antonescu regime was still formally aligned with the Axis Powers. Capt. Klaus Woermann of the Wehrmacht dutifully follows his orders, occupying a remote but imposing keep, literally built into the side of a mountain. Formerly a progressive intellectual, he is not initially unhappy to be sidelined from the war. Unfortunately, when a malevolent force starts killing off his troops, the brutal SS officer Erich Kaempffer is dispatched to deal with the supposed partisans. Of course, it is really an ancient evil the Germans themselves have let loose.

In the book, the entity Molasar (a.k.a. Rasalom) was decidedly more vampiric, while in the film, it bears a clear resemblance to the golem. That sort of helps to explain why the Jewish scholar, Dr. Theodore Cuza, who is whisked off a transport with his daughter Eva, to interpret the ancient writings found within the Keep, would so readily fall under Molasar’s sway. Meanwhile, Molasar’s immortal nemesis Glaeken (who also calls himself Glenn in the novel, but not in the film, in which he is played by Scott Glenn) senses he has awakened, so he returns for a final showdown.

The Keep
is indeed a flawed film, but Mann’s visuals and the trippy Tangerine Dream soundtrack (arguably their best film work) is so distinctive, it ironically raises the comparison stakes for any prospective remake. Despite the troubled production, the first 30 minutes or so of the film really are remarkably eerie. The keep itself is a marvel of design work and cinematographer Alex Thompson’s lighting and camera work is some of the best you will ever see in a genre film.

Mann’s adaptation is another matter entirely, at least as far as we can tell. Molasar is a perfect example of a monster that loses most of its power once we get a good look at it. In its irreparably truncated form, the exploitative nature of a Jewish character helping a cosmic embodiment of evil knock off Nazis also awkwardly stands out. Nevertheless, there is no question Woermann is the only remotely sympathetic German character.

Indeed, Jurgen Prochnow is terrific as the flawed Woermann. Likewise, Gabriel Byrne is totally chilling as the ruthless Kaempffer. However, (not yet Sir) Ian McKellen might have done the weakest work of his illustrious career as the enthralled Dr. Cuza. Arguably, Glenn is appropriately spacy as the out-there Glaeken, but whatever chemistry he might have had with Alberta Watkins’ Eva Cuza obviously suffers from the heavy-handed editing.

Frankly, it is hard to fairly judge the film, given its ill-fortune and roughshod studio treatment. Yet, you can see what it might have been, especially during the wonderfully tense and moody first act. That happens to make it a perfect cult film to see at the Mahoning. (We have wanted to cover their programming since seeing their doc, so
The Keep seemed like a perfect way to start.) “Recommended” as an experience and a curiosity genre fans should know, The Keep screens tonight (4/23), rain or shine, as part of “It Came from the 80’s” at the Mahoning Drive-In.