'Romania, 1942, a detachment of the German Army is sent to gaurd a mysterious Romanian citadel located on a strategic mountain pass. When soldiers begin to be mysteriously murdered, the SS arrives to deal with what is thought to be partisan activity. What the SS finds, however, is an evil force trapped within the Keep and a force which will do anything in order to escape.
After the success of his debut film Thief (1981) director Michael Mann decided that he wanted to surprise people by going in an entirely different direction. He certainly did that, a thematic swerve hasn't been quite as unexpected since Spinal Tap's famed "new direction". And it managed to alarm and appall many of the critics who had hailed him only two years before. The Keep is Mann's only horror movie (if you don't count Manhunter) and was pretty much universally slated on its very limited release. It re-emerged briefly on video and now occasionally crops up in one of several versions on satellite. It remains Mann's least successful film. But, in fact, although it is afflicted with ropey dialogue and what, even for the time, are occasionally unimpressive special effects, it has an intriguing premise and a habit of lingering in the mind long after the superficial flaws have been forgotten.
Based on the first of a sextet of horror novels by F. Paul Wilson (who was unimpressed enough with Mann's movie to later write Cuts, a short story in which a writer puts a voodoo curse on a film director who mangles his work) The Keep has a battalion of German soldiers arriving in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains to occupy an ancient fortress. Within days the hapless soldiers have released an ancient force of some kind which occupies itself by regularly reducing Fritz to cinders. Enter both the SS, who import Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen), an aged Jewish academic, from a concentration camp to try and sort out what exactly they've let loose, and a strange bloke with glowing eyes (Scott Glenn) who is making his way from Greece to The Alps for some kind of supernatural showdown. Dr. Cuza is finally confronted by the monster (who unfortunately looks like a papier mache mask with a red light-bulb inside and who is named in the end credits as Molasar) who announces that he "can smell death". Cuza explains the Nazi concentration camps to him and, in the line that makes clear that Molasar is a Golem (see below) he bellows "They're killing our people?" In return for carrying a talisman, which Molasar claims to be the source of his power, out of The Keep and thus liberating it, it promises to eliminate the Nazis while curing Cuza of his terminal disease as a kind of loyalty bonus.
The Keep is a real love-it/want-to-burn-the-negative kind of movie. For some the heady stew of trademark Michael Mann visuals (slow mo, lense-flare, billowing dry ice), occasionally impenetrable plot structure plus the ubiquitous Tangerine Dream's synth score is an intolerable reminder of the decade that taste forgot. And it is certainly a film with "mid-80s" stamped all over it (Young One Rick Mayall even has a bit part as a German soldier who is visible, unfortunately, only in the widescreen version). But if you forgive the occasional excesses Mann's movie emerges as a unique, intelligent film which matches effective and haunting design to an original and subtle theme. The Keep itself, a giant looming edifice (the work of production designer John Box) nods towards German Expressionism while the small Rumanian village at its foot is equally stylised with a gothic, fairytale feel as churches and houses hug the looming rocky outcrops (in fact, the exteriors for the movie were shot in an abandoned Welsh slate mine). But it's the theme that really marks Mann's film out. The story draws heavily on the ancient Jewish legend of The Golem, a clay man brought to life without a soul who has a habit of turning on his creators (the story has been filmed a number of times notably, and ironically, in the German Der Golem (1913) and its sequels). And it's in that theme, of the corruption inherent in empty power unleashed, that The Keep finds its strength.
The only sympathetic German soldier Voermann (Jurgen Prochnow), in a rant that will lead to his execution, declares that what is occurring in The Keep is the same as what has occurred in Germany. That the uncontrolled lust for power has "unleashed the foulness in all men's minds" and thus the evil manifest in the form of the Nazis and Hitler himself. But Mann's movie matches this with the Jewish academic conjuring up the Golem in order to obliterate his oppressors. He is equally bedazzled by raw power and becomes corrupt, unable to see that once released Molasar will do pretty much what it wants to. Everyone, good or bad it seems, is capable of being corrupted.
The Keep wears it's crap bits proudly on it's sleeve, it's qualities are more hidden and emerge only once you've watched it, dismissed it and then found that it's atmosphere refuses to disperse.