The Disappearance of Michael Mann’s The Keep

Michael Mann has all-but-disowned The Keep. But why? And how has the fanbase kept it going?

Every auteur has a black sheep in their filmography. Something which doesn’t gel with their established style, and was rejected by critics and fans upon release. On this front Spielberg has 1941, Oliver Stone has The Hand, Brian De Palma has Wiseguysand so on.

Michael Mann has the crown jewel of them all. He’s a director best known for his precise, beautifully shot thrillers like HeatManhunter, or The Insider. So how a director famed for his commitment to realism and methodical research ended up crafting a gothic horror movie set during World War II is anyone’s guess.

That’s what happened with 1983’s The Keep, which was his second film after Thief. The movie is based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson, and tells the story of a Nazi platoon that takes refuge in a seemingly abandoned fort in the Romanian mountains, only to encounter an ancient evil within. The book featured great characters, suspenseful horror and a unique villain, so it’s not hard to see why it would be attractive to adapt.

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Except Mann apparently didn’t like the book much and was only attracted to it for the opportunity to make an expressionistic, dreamlike fairytale for adults. While The Keep is a definite departure in terms of genre for Mann, it’s still recognisably his. From the gorgeous visuals, Tangerine Dream soundtrack and generous use of the color blue, there’s no mistaking who was behind the viewfinder.

There’s no overlooking how odd it is either. The narrative is disjointed, the monster is distractingly cheesy and it doesn’t make a lick of sense. This is partly down to the studio taking it away from Mann and cutting it to the bone. By this time the movie had gone way over budget and schedule, and a planned climatic battle had to be scrapped when visual effects coordinator Wally Veevers (2001, Superman) died in post-production, and nobody could figure out how to complete the scene without him.

So Paramount – sensing a dud – chopped it down to 95 minutes following bad test screenings. The Keep went on to receive poor reviews and flopped upon release; the author openly hated it and even Mann has distanced himself ever since. It’s almost never brought up in interviews and when he appeared on Robert Rodriguez’s The Director’s Chair to discuss his career, it was noticeably omitted. The Keep hasn’t even received a DVD or Blu-ray release, with music clearance issues with the score being cited as a sticking point.

So, we have a film the director has seemingly disowned, was a critical and commercial failure and can’t even be found on home media (short of some on demand services). It must suck, right? Well, no. The Keep has many problems and it’s certainly divisive, but it also has an ethereal, haunting quality to it, heightened by Mann’s use of music and imagery. A significant cult following has grown around it for this reason, with many considering it a lost horror gem.

That may be overstating things, but The Keep has a power that’s hard to shake, like a vivid dream that clings to you long after waking. Arguably part of this effect comes from the brutal re-edit; scenes come and go with little context, the hero and heroine fall in love after knowing each other for 20 seconds and the movie feels very fragmented. The book and screenplay fill in many blanks, so let’s see if we can clear the dry ice fog a little and make sense of it all. 

The hero

Let’s start with our hero. Despite being the nominal protagonist Scott Glenn’s Glaeken is short on screentime, and his connection to the keep is kept foggy. The book fleshes him out way more, revealing he’s an immortal being who built the keep centuries before and pays for its maintenance. He and the monster are ancient beings locked in battle, and they represent opposite sides of the same coin; Glaeken is light and Molesar is darkness, essentially.

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Once he senses Molesar has awakened he travels to the keep to destroy him once and for all. In his mind, it’s essentially a suicide mission, since they are so closely tied together. If one goes, so does the other. This is why Glenn’s makeup resembles Molesar in the finale, and if you examine Molesar’s face you’ll notice he was modelled after Glenn’s likeness. 

Glaeken and his love interest Eva (Magda in the book) actually got to know each in the novel too. They stay at the same inn and occasionally team up to spy on the keep, and time is taken to develop a love story between them. In the movie they meet and within minutes there’s an awkward 1980s sex scene, which is quite jarring. Mann planned to flesh out this subplot, but most of these scenes were removed. 

The villain

Molesar got a heck of a reinvention. In the book, he’s basically the originator of the vampire myth and resembles an Anne Rice character instead of the film’s bodybuilding golem. Which isn’t to say he’s non-threatening; quite the opposite. He’s a hateful creature who takes pleasure inflicting pain and terror; he literally feeds off it. He has the ability to absorb light and cause his victims to see endless darkness before he rips their throats out. He can even raise the dead to do his bidding. 

The film version is harder to define; it’s never explained exactly what he is and he absorbs lifeforce instead of blood, causing his victims to explode into dry husks. He originally appears as a mist with floating eyes before gradually taking shape, and while his design is striking, it looks stiff and rubbery in motion. Still, his look appears to have been an inspiration on The Incredible Hulk’s Abomination and Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse.

The book also goes into detail about the “crosses” that cover the keep. They’re actually in the shape of a talisman, which is the handle of Glaeken’s weapon. This is what binds the monster to the keep, and why he needs it removed so he can be free. The book gives a better understanding of the stakes too; if Molesar escapes he will spread darkness and chaos across the world.

Which would be bad. 

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The missing pieces

Mann had planned a two-hour running time for The Keep before the haphazard re-edit, so lots of scenes hit the cutting room floor, including ones that explained what the hell was going on.

An important subplot glossed over in the movie is how Molesar’s evil infects the surrounding settlement, with innocent villagers being filled with murderous rage and jealousy. The only scene hinting at this is when Robert Prosky’s priest – a character original to the film – is seen drinking the blood of a dead dog. Even this moment is so fleeting it’s hard to absorb what’s happening, but scenes were shot showing the village succumbing to madness. Even poor Alexandru – the caretaker of the keep – was shown being murdered by his sons during this sequence. 

Molesar originally committed a few more onscreen murders following his release. There was a scene showing Glaeken being attacked on the boat taking him to the keep, where the captain tries to steal his weapon box; he’s forced to kill the man and captain the boat himself. There also a crucial scene where he discovers Eva snooping in his room and discovering his mystical sword/raygun thingie. This would have led to the aforementioned awkward love scene, and explained how she knew his and Molesar’s name; in the final cut, she just somehow knows.

One of the most memorable scenes is when Major Kaempffer – played with slimy perfection by Gabriel Byrne – comes face to face with Molesar, and learns the hard way crosses don’t work. This comes after the creature has wiped out the entire Nazi platoon, whose charred remains litter the scene. This massacre happens off-screen, though a scene was shot where the soldiers were shown being exploded and charred while firing into the darkness. Paramount were reluctant to sink more money into the film to complete the effects – which is why some FX shots are decidedly iffy – so this scene remained unfinished. 

The original ending

The most significant lost scene is Mann’s original ending. Instead of the abrupt denouement we have now – where Glaeken blasts a hole of light through Molesar – a lengthy effects sequence was planned and shot. Like the book, Glaeken chases the creature through the crumbling keep and onto the roof. The floor collapses under them during the fight and they’re sucked into a vortex, and as they fall through time and space Glaeken succeeds in blasting the creature.

Since this scene was shot in a unique way and only Veevers had the expertise to assemble the various elements, Mann was forced to film the rather anticlimactic demise that now ends the story. The loss of this ending seems to be a major part of Mann’s dissatisfaction with the finished product, and one of the reasons he’s not interested in a director’s cut. Even if he was, apparently the footage needed to assemble one has been lost to time. 

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The theatrical cut ends on a downer, with Glaeken being sucked into the keep after destroying Molesar, while Eva cries in despair. Just like the book the original ending went beyond this scene, with Eva descending into the keep to find him unconscious by a lake. It turns out he wasn’t fated to die, and a look into the water confirms he’s now mortal since he can see his own reflection. While the other deleted scenes are likely lost forever, this extended ending was restored in a TV viewing

The cult

The fanbase around The Keep seems to grown bigger every year. If anything the lack of a home release has made people more eager to track it down, and it’s had a healthy afterlife on Netflix and the occasional late night television airing.

Those who admire the film would do well to check out the original novel, which is still a riveting horror ride of its own. F. Paul Wilson still denounces the film for its many changes to his work, and he released a graphic novel version in 2011 to show how he visualised it.

The fascination surrounding the movie has even led to a fan driven documentary, which is due for release later this year. A World War II Fairytale: The Making Of Michael Mann’s The Keep will examine the production, and interview key cast and crew members about the rocky shoot and what Mann aimed to achieve.

The director himself won’t be taking part of course, which is a shame. While The Keep may not be what he envisioned all those years ago, it remains a singularly unique experience that is still drawing people under its spell. Which isn’t a bad legacy for a ‘failure’ to have, really.