Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Keep

In WW2, a group of Nazis (including Jurgen Prochnow and Gabriel Byrne) stationed in Romania accidentally incur the wrath of a head-exploding demon, locked away in massive citadel. Their prisoner, a Jewish scholar (Ian McKellan) brought in to help investigate, secretly tries to unleash the monster, in the hopes that it will slay the Nazis, while a mysterious man with glowing eyes (Scott Glenn) arrives to offer ominous warnings. Or, more briefly, imagine if someone tried to turn the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark into a feature length film, but less awesome than that sounds.

One recurring plea I make is that I wish more talented filmmakers with strong, recognizable styles would go out on a limb and make horror movies more often. I feel like there are so many great directors out there whose unique skill sets could make for some awesome horror movies, but the genre has this stigma that seems to keep a lot of filmmakers away, even if they wouldn't bat an eye at making a more action oriented film (or nearly any other genre, for that matter). Michael Mann would have been on my list of non-horror directors with the chops to make a killer horror film, due to his films' rich atmosphere and his (inconsistently applied) ability to make precisely crafted set pieces. Turns out that he actually did make a horror film, back in the early 80's, so I knew I had to check it out.

(And, okay, now that I think about it, Manhunter has some serious horror movie elements to it, even if it's more of a thriller/police procedural.)

Well, I guessed right about the atmosphere part. This is a gorgeous looking movie, creating a dreamy, fog-covered world, filled with strange, endless caverns and war torn battlefields straight out of a nightmare. It also has a great, characteristically trippy Tangerine Dream score that lends much to the tone of the film. Although the film is probably at least as much fantasy as it is horror, I was surprised to find how much of the score was energetic and rousing (as opposed to dark and creepy). It's a little incongruous at times, as Tangerine Dream's scores often are, but in an interesting way where it feels more like it's adding unexpected dimensions, rather than misjudging the tone.

Unfortunately, it's one of those visually wonderful films that's all great shots and no good sequences. Mann would later become known for his action, but here none of his shots are pieced together in a way that suggests he cared at all about giving the movie any sense of energy, or narrative propulsion. There's nothing like a real set piece or suspense sequence. Everything is just mood, and its all the same mood, whether its an action scene or just a drawn out sequence of a boat drifting across the ocean while the sun sets in the background. It all plays at the same speed. A scene of violence is given the same weight as a character standing around doing nothing.

Mann's silly, tin eared screenplay doesn't help. A dynamite cast is forced to spit out a lot of dumb, over written dialogue and interact with cool but dated special effects, and I'd say McKellan is the only one who comes out without embarrassing himself. Like a lot of Mann's films, The Keep often feels like it was whittled down from a much longer film. It has way too many major characters than it can sustain in its brief 95 minutes, with characters often vanishing for extended periods of time only to re-emerge during a seemingly climactic moment... and ultimately prove their presence pointless in the overall scheme of things. Mann would have been smarter cutting most of the characters out and focusing on McKellan and the demon, unquestionably the highlights of the film.

If it seems like I'm slagging this one, well, I am, but I also had a certain affection for it. It has a corny, indelible 80's-ness to it that I enjoyed, a great score, some fun special effects, and a rich visual style. So I'm giving it a thumbs up, but I must be honest that by the end of the film, my frequent laughter was mostly at the film's expense and not simply out of fondness.

Grade: C+

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