If you haven’t heard this month, Funai Electric, the last major manufacturer of VCR’s will close its production lines forever. This isn’t much of a surprise considering the last major film released on VHS came out eleven years ago—it was A History of Violence, btw. To most people, this won’t mean much. DVDs and Blu-Rays look and sound better. They also have special features, don’t need rewinding, and don’t require you to ride your finger on that goddamn tracking dial every five minutes. It makes me shudder just thinking about it.
What many movie lovers may not realize is how many films will be lost. All the obscure horror movies, foreign dramas, and wrestling videos that will rot away in your grandparent’s basement or in the attics of psychopaths. Most of it is shlock, but a movie is a movie goddamn it! What I want to know is why some of these films never make the leap? In particular, why has The Keep been locked away all these years?
Most horror films are lost to time because they’re terrible. They are zero budget gorefests whipped up by weirdos with cameras they probably stole from Radio Shack dumpsters. They weren’t worth seeing then and aren’t worth seeing now. The Keep is different. It was a 6 million dollar film with real actors like Scott Glenn, Jurgen Prochnow, and Ian McKellen. It had music by Tangerine Dream. Most surprising, it was the second film written and directed by Michael Mann (Heat, The Insider, Collateral). Just to think Michael Mann’s first film, the 1981 neo-noir classic Thief, has a Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray and his second film is only available in the bargain bin at Goodwill. Well Laserdisc too, but that’s a tale for another time.
Oddly enough, you can watch The Keep on Amazon Instant Video. Though this version is nothing to write home about. It’s grainy, only available in full screen and this is the accompanying artwork they gave it. I guess the Amazon employee who put that up wanted to leave work early that day.
Based on the 1981 novel by F. Paul Wilson, The Keep is about a group of nazis in WWII who discover an uninhabited stone citadel in a small Romanian village. The group is led by Capt. Klaus Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) and investigate where they find upside down nickel crosses, treasure and an ancient evil. This ancient evil is a demonic being named Radu Molasar (voiced by Michael Carter), aka a guy in a dumb rubber suit with lips that don’t match his dialogue.
Molasar kills several nazi soldiers which calls for a visit from ST Sturmbahnfuhrer Eric Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) to take command of the Keep. To better understand the Keep’s power, Kaempffer enlists the help of a Jewish historian Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen) currently imprisoned at a concentration camp. Cuza is reluctant but agrees and brings his hot daughter Eva (Alberta Watson).
It’s funny, I’m so used to seeing Sir Ian play old men that when I found out he was in a movie from the early 1980s, I was excited. What’s a young Ian McKellen (he was 44) like? But nope, Ian McKellen is in a wheelchair in heavy old man makeup. So I’m just watching young Ian McKellen play modern day Ian McKellen. It’s kind of like how Max Von Sydow aged himself up for The Exorcist so everyone has assumed he’s been an old man for the last forty years. Not really relevant, just an observation.
Next, we meet a biker named Glenn played by Scott Glenn (picture Marlon Brando from The Wild One but with more wrinkles). Glenn is a soft-spoken man with purple eyes who plans on visiting the Keep to do… something. Honestly, he’s not really important until he meets and falls for Eva and they have spiritual yoga sex. Also, if you haven’t guessed by the purple eye thing, Glen isn’t human. Turns out he’s an immortal super being, except he fights for the ancient Forces of Light. I didn’t catch onto any of this while watching the film.
The majority of the film from here on out is spent with Cuza deciphering ancient writings and having spiritual encounters with Molasar. Notably, Molasar revitalizes him by ridding him of debilitating illnesses and making him look younger. Except he still looks pretty old. You think it would be cool to see Ian McKellen flex his acting skills against a giant rubber monster, and though McKellen is good the story is so flat.
Glenn aka “Glaeken” (his super being name) is brought to the Keep by Cuza so Molasar can destroy him, maybe? But they shoot a bunch of terrible special effects electricity and Molasar is banished. Which leaves Glaeken to take his place as the protector of the Keep.
The film is incomprehensible. Apparently, there were longer cuts—including a 201-minute cut—but Paramount insisted they cut the movie down to 96 minutes. Though I appreciate the shorter running time it sounds like they cut a great deal of the film’s plot. The film has an uneven flow to it and the motivations and actions of its characters are confusing.
What’s sad is there are good aspects to this film. The cinematography, although desperately in need of a remastering, is inventive and appealing. As is the film’s production design. The film only cost 6 million but they made it count, it looks good. The acting is good too. Ian McKellen gives a strong performance as does Gabriel Byrne and a priest played by Robert Prosky.
I think the problem is Michael Mann was attempting something too ambitious for where he was in his career. He was still a fledgling director and didn’t have much sway with the big studio that produced the film. Which is probably why the film is so forgotten. Mann doesn’t like it. It wasn’t his vision, it wasn’t F. Paul Wilson’s vision, it wasn’t anyone’s. It is probably best forgotten and yet, I find it’s existence interesting. The idea that a talented filmmaker made a weirdly ambitious fantasy/period piece with talented actors that you can’t find on DVD. It’s kind of like finding a treasure chest in an old cave. Except instead of it being full of treasure, it’s full of shitty old VHS tapes, and you better believe they’re going to need tracking