When it comes to a prolific, influential director with a filmography stretching back numerous decades, movie enthusiasts often want to unearth a diamond from the rough from a more maligned period of their career, or at least a hidden gem from their early days. What if Steven Spielberg’s 1941 is actually a secret masterpiece? Maybe James Cameron’s Piranha II is better than Terminator 2? Who’s to say that G.I. Jane isn’t Ridley Scott’s best film?
The draw towards this has a particular appeal when a work in question stands out as an outlier in light of the director’s subsequent career. Case in point: Michael Mann’s 1983 sophomore feature The Keep. Mann made his debut with the 1981 crime film Thief, and that genre has come to define his career in the eyes of many, with the likes of Heat, Miami Vice and Public Enemies. There have been notable excursions into the realm of biopics and documents of historical stories (see: Ali, The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider), so if there’s a quality that unites the vast majority of Mann’s films, it’s that they are fairly rooted in the workings of the real world — no, your objections to plot holes in Collateral and Blackhat do not dispel this.
Though it has a semblance of a link to real world events (World War II), The Keep is completely unlike every other film Mann has made to date in that it explicitly deals with the fantastical. This is a horror movie rife with demonic spirits, seemingly ancient evil and mysterious figures with supernatural abilities. Just about the only way in which it feels anything like another Mann film is in the presence of actor Robert Prosky and a Tangerine Dream score popping up to provide moody atmospherics in the way only Tangerine Dream can.
But 33 years on, is it the case that The Keep is a hidden gem of Mann’s filmography? Was it treated unfairly both critically and commercially at the time? That was certainly my hope when I decided to finally catch up with the film, anyway. Sadly, pretty much all praise for it is relegated to the film’s opening stretch, which does have an initially arresting, ethereal feel thanks to the Tangerine Dream soundscapes and our first look at the design of the Romanian keep in which Nazi soldiers will accidentally awaken a supernatural entity, one that will start picking them off in order to gain the power to do… something.
Things start getting pretty incomprehensible from that point, which wouldn’t necessarily be so destructive if there was any sort of electricity to the film’s atmospherics and sense of dread. The problem is that the pacing is so languid, the editing choices so jarring, and the characters so confusingly defined that The Keep’s detours into the territory of, for lack of a better term, “camp schlock” offer little in the way of fun, or frights for that matter.
Really, the main worth of The Keep is as a curiosity; to see a significantly different career path that Mann could have taken had this film had any sort of positive impact on pop culture. But regarding its deserving of potential “film maudit” status, sometimes the rabbit hole just leads you to dirt, kids.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.