The Keep (1983) | 31 Days of Horror: Oct 13

by Jovial Jay

Featuring demons, creepy castles and Nazis, oh my!

In an interesting take on the mythology of vampirism, The Keep offers some parallels regarding power and what it takes to maintain it.

Before Viewing

It has probably been 25 years since I saw this moody, atmospheric, weird film, so I don’t remember too much. The trailer does not do much to convey anything in the way of plot, but presents more of the style of the film: smokey sets with strong backlighting. It also has Nazi’s in it. And some sort of demon. I do recall that. But more importantly it’s directed by Michael Mann, director of Manhunter and co-creator of Miami Vice. Let’s open this Keep up and see what’s inside!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

The Keep

The Keep title card.

After Viewing

The titular Keep is set in the Dinu Pass of the Carpathian mountains in 1941. An echelon of German soldiers led by Captain Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) have been assigned to guard the pass and will be staying in the creepy Keep beside it. Alexandru (W. Morgan Sheppard), a caretaker, warns them many have tried but few actually stay. But more importantly don’t touch any of the 108 crosses set into the stone walls of the building. Woermann comments how it appears that the design of the structure is backwards almost like it’s keeping something in.

Some of the soldiers didn’t get the memo that the crosses are nickel, and start to tear one down thinking it to be silver. This opens a hole in the wall where something ethereal and dangerous escapes killing the soldiers. In Greece, a man identified in the credits as Glaeken (Scott Glenn) awakens with the foreknowledge that something is happening, and books passage to the Romanian coast.

Back at the Keep a group of SS soldiers roll into town, led by the vicious Commander Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne). He’s in town to bring order, shoot some locals, and teach Woermann a thing or two about the glorious purpose of the Nazi’s. He does not believe in fairy tales or legends, but rather in fear and respect, believing that village partisans have been behind the killings. A strange phrase appears carved in the wall, which the local priest, identified in the credits as Father Fornescu (Robert Prosky), is unable to identify. He offers up a name of someone to help: Dr. Cuza.

The Keep

Kaempffer question Dr Cuza, a young Ian McKellen in old age makeup.

Cuza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are brought from a local internment camp to aid the Nazi’s. He is 48, but looks 68 due to complications of Scleroderma. He helps Kaempffer but only enough to continue living. The deaths continue with two more soldiers who attempted to rape Eva. A strange billowy smoke-shape with glowing red eyes rescues her and returns her to her father.

Eva is sent out of the Keep by Captain Woermann to stay safe, and meets Glaeken in the local inn, where the two immediately have a sexual encounter. Kaempffer has a philosophical disagreement with Woermann about the ideals of the third reich and shoots the Captain in the back, killing him. Cuza makes a deal with the demon, who cures his disease if he will help the demon slay the evil Nazi’s and their leader too. All Cuza must do is safeguard the creatures power-scepter from a man hunting him down, Glaeken. Galeken comes to confront the monster, who is now able to take physical form, but is gunned down by Nazi’s believing him the killer.

Cuza finds the scepter as the monster (only identified from the credits as Molasar) kills Kaempffer. Eva tries to stop her father and Molasar emplores him to kill her. Realizing at this point that the scepter is not part of his power, but keeping him inside the Keep, he declines, reverting back to his diseased state. Glaken arrives with his power-staff which, when coupled with the power-scepter, creates a lightsaber/force beam that blasts Molasar back into his cell. But it also takes Glaeken life as well, sucking him in. Eva and her father leave the Keep.

The devil in the Keep wears a black uniform and has a death’s head in his cap, and calls himself a Sturmbannführer” – Dr. Cuza

The Keep

Commander Kaempffer questions everyone’s motives.

Let’s be clear, The Keep is not a good movie. Based on a the novel by F. Paul Wilson the film suffers from several problems including clarity of story, narrative gaps, and a technical one – the audio mix. The biggest problem of the film is that it purports to be a horror film, but there’s really nothing terrifying about it. The monster is shown in full shots and long takes, making the special effects used on him him less special. Many of the deaths and incidents occur off-screen. And there’s no tension about these killings (I mean, the creature is killing Nazi’s. Who would that scare except more Nazi’s?)

A lot of the expositional issues with the film probably stem from the fact that Mann’s original cut of the film was twice as long. It appears as if large sections are missing, such as introductions of the characters. As shown above, many of the characters are not named except in the credits, or they’re introduced like the wonderful caretaker played by Morgan Sheppard, and then disappear completely. Finally the audio mix is all over the place. It’s difficult to hear dialogue sometimes due to it being either too quiet, or dwarfed by the soundtrack.

That isn’t to say there aren’t good things here as well. The atmosphere is stunning as well as the musical score by Tangerine Dream. There’s a reason this has become a cult film for many. The use of heavy smoke and lighting effects gives the stone castle a moody and slick look, like many music videos of the time. It’s highly reminiscent of the stylized sequences in 1986’s Highlander. Add in the electronic music score by Tangerine Dream, which contrasts with the 1941 setting, and there’s things to keep viewers interested.

Unfortunately overall the film isn’t sure what kind of film it should be. If it’s a vampire film, as evidenced by the discussions of evil, its location in the Carpathian mountains as in Dracula: Prince of Darkness, and the fact that Glaeken doesn’t cast a reflection, it’s never explored. Is it a demonic film about the first evil being released and a group of warrior monks protecting the world from its release? Or maybe it’s a philosophical film about the use of power and compassion as shown in the discussions between Cuza, Kaempffer, and Woermann. Feel free to make up your own mind, but in my mind the film just doesn’t “keep.”

The Keep

Glaeken says goodbye to this world.

Assorted Musings

  • This film was a very early one for most of the actors. It was the 15th film for Scott Glenn who had made a big splash in The Right Stuff earlier in the year. It was Jurgen Prochnow’s 11th film following his breakout role in Das Boot earlier in the year, which was followed by Dune the next year. And it was the 5th film for both Ian McKellen and Gabriel Byrne.
  • The actor playing Molasar was no stranger to prosthetics having played Bib Fortuna in Return of the Jedi earlier in the year.
  • Michael Mann would go on to co-create the TV series Miami Vice, as well as direct the first Hannibal Lector film Manhunter, and the Robert DeNiro/Al Pacino crime drama Heat.

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