“You have released the foulness that dwells in all men’s minds! You have infected millions with your twisted fantasies! And from the millions of diseased mentalities that worship your twisted cross… what monstrosity has been released in this keep?”
The Keep, 1983 (Scott Glenn), Paramount Pictures
An Argento/Goblins-like musical collage (courtesy of realist post-punk 80s staple, Tangerine Dream) fills our ears as Michael Mann’s chilling, underrated The Keep begins. Jürgen Prochnow’s strikingly pale blue eye gazes upon innocent Romanian villagers living at the base of an immense citadel. He is the Captain of a German Army sent (for strategic purposes) to control a crucial mountain pass, and the citadel (a castle-keep) is to be their base of operations.
The keep is maintained by a batty old man who warns the soldiers not to strip the walls of crosses made from solid nickel, but their unearthly glow (that a couple of dimwitted soldiers are convinced is silver) is just too tantalizing to ignore. Breaking through a wall, situated at the precipice of what appears to be an enormous temple, the soldiers are killed by a long-dormant entity. The spirit’s resurgence causes a creepy and mysterious (yet hauntingly striking) Scott Glenn to enter the picture. He charters a boat to Romania.
The SS arrives (under the command of the evil – Whew! Here we go – Sturmbannführer Erich Kaempffer played by Gabriel Byrne) and begins executing the villagers as Communists. Prochnow (as a soldier in the regular German army) locks horns with Byrne and warns him of the unusual power of the castle-keep, but Byrne ain’t hearin’ none of it. The Germans retain ailing Jewish professor Theodore Cruza (Ian McKellen, rocking a fedora, though not quite convincing as an old man) and his hot daughter, Eva, to translate the inscriptions on the castle walls. When soldiers try to rape Eva, the entity appears and causes their heads to explode. After confronting the entity, Eva’s father is rejuvenated, possibly cured, as he reasons the spirit feeds on it’s victims’ souls.
Eva escapes (with Prochnow’s help) and takes up residence in a nearby Inn where she meets up with Glenn’s ambiguous visitor. For reasons that are never explained, they make love. He tells her he’s a traveler from “everywhere”, whatever that means. He tells Eva he is to guard against the resurrection of the entity (identified as “Molasar”). Glenn is arrested by the SS. He is revealed to possess super-strength and appears to be impervious to bullets.
By itself – if you know nothing of the film’s troubled production history – the narrative holds up surprisingly well. Upon closer evaluation, I can see that enormous sections of the story were left out of the general release granted by Paramount. There’s simply too much in the way of stunning art design, set decoration, and cinematography to be relegated to a paltry 95 minutes.
Michael Mann’s original cut of the film ran some three-and-a-half hours. It is replete with his early style; that of gorgeous widescreen composition, moody performances, and synthesizer-heavy music, reminiscent of his previous work, Thief, and his later effort, Manhunter. This is a movie screaming out to be restored and released in Mann’s director’s cut; given the Blade Runner treatment. Strangely, the movie is not available in either DVD or Blu Ray format (indeed the version I recently watched was on an old laserdisc), but it did receive heavy rotation on cable channels in the early 80s, which is where I first saw it.
Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.