The Keep (1983)
When I recently watched The Keep (1983), the biggest shock I felt was when Ian McKellan first appeared. “Oh, my gosh!” I thought. “He looks the same as he does now! How old is he?” I soon learned that he was wearing old-age makeup and when an evil force later touches him with a red, glowing hand, “electrocuting” him with 1980’s special effects, his youth is restored and he returns to age-appropriate form.
The makeup is great, except for the fact that when he’s young, McKellan maintains a Doc Brown-like head of hair that didn’t quite lose its entire gray. For the 1980s, the design of the evil force is also outstanding. It evolves over the course of the movie and, maintaining the rule that the less seen, the better, looks best early when it’s a tower of swirling mist with only its red hands and glowing eyes visible through it.
Nick Maley, makeup effects supervisor and prosthetics designer, discussed the “uncanny evolution” of the evil, Molasar, in the pages of Fangoria #33…
Director (Michael) Mann wanted a very unusual creature design. He’s a very demanding director. He likes to have everything tested, he likes to know exactly what he's going to get. He's not one of those directors who will settle easily. He has an image in his mind of what he wants and that's basically what you're going to give him, which means you can go through tests and various stages before he gets exactly what he wants.
To have a character which appears throughout the picture and never looks the same and yet you have to be able to recognize him as being the same character — that's not too easy. There were certain things we had to establish early on which had to be carried through from one form to another. Mainly, we locked down on his eyes, since the eyes are such a strong feature of any character. In Molasar's case, his eyes form very early on and this is something that we can recognize throughout the movie.
It requires a lot of discretion. It's a fairly hard thing to just pluck out of the air. It's not something that you would find in a standard monster movie; you can't just pull out a Creature from the Black Lagoon or an It monster, because they don't relate in any way to this project. And at the same time you have to do something that's fairly fantastic for the creature to be believable as an immortal which has been caged within this fortress for 400 years.
The approach was different from American Werewolf in London and The Thing. There are no on-screen transformations in The Keep because the story is about people and the way that people are influenced by one another; at least that's a major part of the story, as I see it. Although Molasar is affecting everything and forcing situations, he isn't overexposed. You don't see him running around tearing people to bits, even though that is happening. He is changing all the time and, as there are gaps of several days between scenes showing Molasar, each time we see him he has already changed into something else.
36 years later, the intentions of Mann and Maley remain true. While some seams appear now, I imagine the effects were spectacular in 1983. The problem is, I never saw The Keep in 1983… not for lack of trying. I tried watching it, on HBO, if I recall, and could not make it to the end. At the time, I found it boring and actually dozed before turning it off.
Today, I can appreciate the artistry of Michael Mann (Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans, Collateral) that I could not appreciate when I was a 20-year old college student. That means, I can more easily accept a lot of close-ups, slow motion, and freeze-frame. I’m surprised, though, that I never appreciated the score by Tangerine Dream. I was a huge fan of the music in Risky Business earlier the same year.
I had the opposite reaction when I recently watched it. At 96-minutes, I thought it was too short. After a long, slow beginning that oozes with atmosphere, The Keep switches gears as it introduces plot points. It rapidly connects the dots without supplying many details. F. Paul Wilson, author of the novel on which The Keep is based, had quite a bit to say about this in the pages of Fangoria #36…
The first hour of the film was a real high. I had a real lump in my throat. I was that happy. And then little things started happening. When Glaeken and Eva (Magda in the book) meet on this little hilltop. . . and in the next scene they're in bed! It was then I started realizing that something was wrong. There was no character development.
I think it was a difficult book; I had three protagonists, two villains, and an innocent caught in the middle. I think there were a lot of difficult relationships and he needed to spend more time there. I think he needed another 25 minutes; things just happened too fast in the last half-hour. It was bam-bam-bam. Over. There were so many missed opportunities.
The thing I regret most is that a lot of people will see the movie and think that this is the way my book ended. And that's the part that disturbs me the most because, as I've said, I threw everything I could think of — what I wanted to see in a horror novel — into The Keep. And a lot more people are going to see that movie than will ever read my book. And maybe a lot of people who would have bought the book, won't, because they'll say: 'Well, gee, what kind of ending is that?' You write the book to be read. That part hurt.
Mann really spent so much time on this thing. I can't fault him as an artist or as a worker. He threw everything he had into this. He got SS manuals to look up German uniforms… and he brought in a speech instructor to teach the actors how to speak English — not with a German accent but with a German rhythm. He went to tremendous lengths to insure the authenticity of the film.
Yet he neglected to consult what is probably most essential to the story — the originator of the story itself. That's what's so frustrating: to get all the fine points, but miss the story. I really think if he'd have sat down with me a couple of times with the final screenplay or let me attend some of the screenings, I really think I could have contributed something because it is, after all, my story and I know how to tell it best. I could see the forest. He knew all the trees, but I could see the forest. I think he really could've had a much more coherent picture
A director knows he's changing an author's work and he has to, because he's got to think visually. I can have my characters think and let the readers in on what they're thinking. He can't do any of that. He's got to change things; also he's got to simplify things. But Michael Mann was trying to make a different kind of movie from my book, and if it works — fine. Great. But it didn't. And I think it didn't because there are certain strengths to that book and he chose to ignore them.
Again, I tend to agree with comments made during the film’s original release. Another element lost in truncating the story is the acting. With a cast that includes Scott Glenn, Jurgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, Gabriel Byrne, and Ian McKellan, I’d expect more than what we get in The Keep. It’s a matter of style over substance, another characteristic of Mann’s. Glenn talked about his role in Fangoria #31…
What Michael told me about Glaeken that was fascinating to me was that I was going to play a guy who had been on earth for over a thousand years. He was a semi-human who had been a voyeur of human existence for all that time because he is a sort of cosmic watchdog, put on earth to guard against the time the Devil appears.
In talking to Michael about it, I realized that I was going to play a guy whose point of view, number one, was as a voyeur, a person who was dying to participate in anything, which is an interesting kind of tension to have in a character, and, number two, the perspective this character would have, rather than that of one life, would be a cynical perspective.
From scene to scene, the way this guy reacted to life had to be invented. In terms of voice, Michael wanted Glaeken to talk in a way that was not naturalistic but, nevertheless, wouldn't be indecipherable or nonhuman. He wanted the lines to come out of a consciousness that was considering them from an experience of 2000 years. Well, how do you do that technically? It's great to sit around and talk about that, but what does that mean to an audience sitting in a theater when they see this dude with violet eyes and strange clothes.
The director’s focus seemed to include character history that could be a seed for development in the movie, and knowing the running time of Mann’s later movies, I’m almost certain The Keep suffered from cuts by the hands of the studio. This was only his second theatrical film after Thief (1981), so he probably didn’t have the influence to wrest control from producer Howard W. Koch Jr. and Paramount.
Though we’re unlikely to see it, The Keep really cries for a director’s cut. I’d settle for a Blu-ray release; I don’t think it’s currently available even on DVD. (There’s apparently an import available from La Entertainment.) The presentation on Amazon Prime seemed like VHS quality to me, but I definitely enjoyed it, appreciating the intent of what was offered, but longing for more... for what could have been.
Written by Michael Mann
Based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson
Directed by Michael Mann
Starring Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Jurgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellen
RT 96 min.
US Release Date Dec. 16, 1983
Home Video Amazon Prime (Streaming)
David Everitt, Fangoria #31, Watchdog of The Keep
December, 1983, United States, Starlog Group
David Everitt, Fangoria #33, The Creature Effects of The Keep
February, 1984, United States, Starlog Group
Roger Anker, Fangoria #36, The Movie That Got Lost
July, 1984, United States, Starlog Group