THE KEEP (1983)

keepTHE KEEP (1983) – During World War Two, Nazi forces occupy a sinister stone Keep, only to realize they have disturbed a malevolent ancient entity which begins preying upon them. The unleashed force manipulates a prisoner of the Nazis into freeing it from its ages-old prison.

With hindsight, The Keep seems like it should have been a massive hit. Directed by Michael Mann, who adapted the screenplay from the novel by F. Paul Wilson, the stars included Jurgen Prochnow, Ian McKellan, Scott Glenn, Gabriel Byrne and Alberta Watson. Plus, the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark a few years earlier had made Nazis cinema’s most popular villains since the actual World World Two era.

So, what went wrong? Well, for starters, Mann’s cut of the film was supposedly just over three hours long at a time when studios expected such length only in epics (Reds, Gandhi, etc), not horror films. The Keep was then butchered in the editing room to the point where Michael Mann TO THIS DAY flies off the handle if this film is even mentioned during media interviews with him.

glaeken and evaAnother flaw in the resulting 96-minute movie was the lack of sufficient special effects in 1983 to properly realize Mann’s vision. Some scenes with the unleashed entity look so silly it’s like you’re watching a 1970s episode of Doctor Who. But let’s be clear, cutting the movie down to half its original length left it seeming incoherent much of the time, and left Scott Glenn’s character horrifically underdeveloped. Michael Mann’s incredible skill with visuals was almost the only good thing about The Keep, but not even that virtue could salvage such a savagely cut down story.    

This movie has gained a cult following over the years, in my opinion largely because time has allowed audiences to more properly understand what Mann was going for and what the actual story is. Here is my take:

The Keep – both the movie and the source novel – is not strictly a horror story. Today it would be adapted as a multi-part series on a streaming service and would be hyped as what it truly is – a fantasy tale. Mann did not do himself any favors in capturing the flavor of the story by changing the mystic weapon of Glaeken (Scott Glenn) from a sword to a quarterstaff, since many reviews of the film mistakenly identify it as a “walking stick” instead. 

The ages-long adversarial relationship between Glaeken and The Keep’s vile entity Molasar (Rasalom spelled backwards) was butchered so badly in the editing that what should have been a grand battle like those in the first Highlander film came across instead in a very vague and unsatisfying manner.


woermannIn April of 1941, German forces under the command of Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) are ordered to secure a pass through the Carpathian mountains. They take over a tiny Romanian hamlet in order to use the forbidding stone Keep that dominates the area as their headquarters. Greedy soldiers try to steal some of the hundreds of silver crosses that adorn the interior of the ancient edifice, thus unleashing the being that has been imprisoned there for centuries.

This entity, calling itself Molasar, spends several nights slaying soldiers in especially ghastly ways, no matter what precautions are taken by Woermann and his men. He is convinced by now that the local priest (Robert Prosky) was not so crazy after all when he warned Woermann about supernatural forces in the Keep. Meanwhile, in Greece, the purple-eyed Glaeken senses that his ancient adversary has awakened and sets out for the Romanian village, armed with his quarterstaff.

kaempfferProchnow’s superiors in Berlin dismiss claims of boogey men, and they send an actual, hardcore, black-uniformed S.S. unit to take over command of the area from Jurgen’s character Woermann. The unit is led by Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), a fanatical Nazi, in contrast to Woermann’s devoted military man who resents the Nazis and wishes that anti-Nazi Germans had prevented Hitler’s rise.

Kaempffer dismisses Woermann as a bungling weakling and assumes that the German soldiers in the Keep are being killed by Romanian guerillas. Byrne’s character has his men kill some villagers at random and seizes even more as hostages to be held in the Keep. The S.S. man warns the citizens that he will execute five of the hostages for every German soldier who is killed from now on.

Naturally, Molasar couldn’t care less about the warring of mere mortals and continues killing Woermann and Kaempffer’s men in grisly ways, with the clueless Byrne executing hostages in turn, trying to discourage the nonexistent “guerillas” he’s convinced he’s up against.

cuzaAncient writings that have appeared on the walls of the Keep result in a Dachau-bound Jewish scholar, Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellan) and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) getting spared for the moment and detoured to the remote Keep. Cuza translates the ancient scribblings as a declaration of freedom (in the novel the words are a command to leave “my home”), which further convinces the vicious Kaempffer that would-be Romanian freedom fighters are his opponents. 

As more time goes by and the body count rises nightly, Glaeken arrives, and develops a way too quick sexual relationship with Eva. (Again, the editing can be blamed for the poor pacing and underdeveloped character bits.)

the keepMolasar, meanwhile, has cured Dr. Cuza of his skin ailments and restored his ability to walk in order to recruit him as a servant. Cuza figuratively sells his soul to this powerful entity who has cured him and – at present – is killing only their mutual enemies in the Keep. The doctor ignores his daughter’s warnings that clearly the ancient entity represents an evil even more dangerous than the Nazis themselves.

Relishing his restored health and mobility, and quite rightly loathing his Nazi captors, Dr. Cuza proceeds to obey Molasar’s commands to betray Glaeken and to remove the mystic talisman binding the creature to its prison. In a jumble of obviously slapped together scenes, Dr. Cuza nearly kills his daughter, Glaeken manages to defeat his ancient foe Molasar, and both the “good” and “evil” figures vanish into another dimension.   

Overall, a first-time viewer will be too confused to piece together what has happened during The Keep, and so Cliff’s Notes summaries like this review are necessary just to understand the story. Also, despite Michael Mann’s haunting visuals, he reveals way too much of Molasar’s form, making the being fail as a horror villain and look more like a monster that Conan or other sword and sorcery figures would have faced.

bridge to the keepIf you knew none of the information revealed in this blog post, you could watch The Keep with the sound down and soak in the beautiful imagery while making up your own storyline. I’m only partially joking. To be fair, this movie still has its defenders and I can see their point. The Keep is magnificent to look at, but remains a mess because of the choppy editing and its mischaracterization as purely a horror film.   




Filed under Bad and weird movies

7 responses to “THE KEEP (1983)

  1. I never saw this movie, but I have been aware of it just about forever. I read the book a few years back and rated it ★★★★ on Goodreads. Now you’ve made me wish for a director’s cut of the film, which surely doesn’t exist …

  2. I saw it at the time. A good friend of mine, in the movie business himself, said I had to see it. So, needless to say, I felt entirely let down. As you in effect said, visually ahead of it’s time. A great write up, Ed.

  3. I recently re-watched this movie on Criterion (yes, it made it on Criterion!) and liked it. Not the best movie ever but not the worst, either.

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