A stark, stylish work of historical horror fueled by a synth laden score from the ever-reliable Tangerine Dream, The Keep (1983) has managed to beguile and evade viewers for nearly forty years, though it’s been disowned by its director, Michael Mann.
Based on a novel by F. Paul Wilson, who has likewise disowned the adaptation, The Keep opens with a group of Nazi soldiers unleashing an unknown demonic force from within the walls of a fortress. An uneasy, or at least unexpected, amalgam of handsomely produced studio historical epic = and supernatural horror programmer, it’s not hard to see why the film didn’t connect with audiences in the holiday season of 1983, following close behind crowd pleasers like Sudden Impact and Scarface.
Perhaps owing to its reception in 1983, it’s been hard to see in the years since. Though it was released on VHS and Laserdisc, the only officially licensed DVD release of the film was in Australia in 2020, and it has yet to receive any HD physical media release worldwide. It’s rare that a major work by a renowned filmmaker should be essentially buried (see also: Ken Russell’s The Devils, 1971). The studio may not be eager to make it any more accessible, remembering its now-famous troubled production, including hefty runtime cuts required by Paramount and a multitude of creative differences and delays. Mann—usually fond of re-editing his films—has ignored this one.
Despite everything working against it, The Keep remains a fascinating film in its own right and especially as a part of Mann’s career. Filling the gap between his breakout crime masterpiece Thief (1981) and his Thomas Harris adaptation Manhunter (1986), we can see Mann honing his craft with larger sets, a gifted ensemble cast (Scott Glenn, Ian McKellen, Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne), exquisitely composed cinematography by Exalibur (1981) DP Alex Thomson and, yes, his bold use of Tangerine Dream’s synth-pop, which would be more fitting had the film been set four decades later. Mann’s career is nothing if not anachronistic, constantly melding the old and new to a profound effect—just look at the mix of digital and 35mm in Collateral (2006)—but here it is taken to such extremes, cartoonish at times, that it could only be polarizing. The Keep is hardly a perfect film, though maybe one exists somewhere in Mann’s unseen 210-minute epic cut. In these 96 minutes, we are left with a series of glimpses into the methodical madness of Michael Mann, full of smoke and exploding heads.
The Keep screens tonight, tomorrow, and Saturday, October 20–22, in 35mm at Roxy Cinema.