calum wad­dell Looks back at Michael Mann’s chaotic sec­ond movie – a hor­ror of rewrites, monsters and plain in­san­ity

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Michael Mann may be best known for shap­ing TV’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary Mi­ami Vice and helm­ing

Heat and Col­lat­eral, but he fol­lowed his first film, ‘ 81’ s Thief, with one of the weird­est and most per­plex­ing films in the his­tory of hor­ror. Adapted from the pulp novel by Paul L Wilson, The Keep was bankrolled by Paramount Pic­tures and shot largely in London’s Shep­per­ton Stu­dios and Llan­beris, North Wales. But any no­tion of a smooth shoot in Mann’s adopted home­land was soon shat­tered as the bud­get spi­ralled, the film­ing sched­ule fal­tered and key mem­bers of the crew de­cided to quit… “I spent three months in pre- pro­duc­tion on

The Keep,” be­gins Nick Ma­ley, the film’s make- up de­signer who, at the time, was fresh from the would- be genre block­buster Krull ( 1983). “Then we be­gan a three month shoot. But be­fore I knew it I had been on the thing for a year. It re­ally did go on for that long. So I left – I had enough. And from what I heard they kept film­ing even once I was gone. The movie was ab­so­lute chaos.”

Set in 1941, dur­ing the early years of World War 2, Mann’s movie tells of a bar­ren old Ro­ma­nian fortress, lorded over by an ag­ing philoso­pher and his sons, that en­traps an an­cient red- eyed golem called Radu Mo­lasar. When Hitler’s army ( led by fa­mil­iar character ac­tor Jür­gen Prochnow) ar­rives in the area, two of the men steal a large sil­ver cross from inside the ci­tadel, which ex­poses an in­fi­nite gate­way that un­leashes the age- old en­tity. Panic en­sues after one sol­dier is slaugh­tered, and a Jewish pro­fes­sor in me­dieval his­tory ( ably por­trayed by Ian McKellen) is brought in from a con­cen­tra­tion camp to try and fig­ure out the na­ture of the ma­raud­ing mon­stros­ity. In the end McKellen, un­der­stand­ably pes­simistic about the planet’s fu­ture, has to fight off the temp­ta­tion to un­leash the deadly de­mon into the wider world.

The macabre mix also in­cludes a brief love story, a ri­val group of SS thugs, McKellen con­vers­ing with the film’s English- speak­ing spec­tre, and an ap­pear­ance by Scott Glenn as a shad­owy sor­cerer who blasts The Keep’s vil­lain­ous beast back into obliv­ion. In other words, the whole she­bang – as slick- look­ing as it is – doesn’t make a sin­gle lick of sense.

“Michael Mann was do­ing rewrites on the story ev­ery night,” says Ma­ley, most fa­mous for help­ing to as­sem­ble Yoda on The Em­pire

Strikes Back. “That is also why the shoot went on for so long. Mak­ing the movie was not a lot of fun. It was hard enough to go to work in the morn­ing let alone un­der­stand where the film was go­ing. And be­cause the script was get­ting rewrit­ten all the time none of us knew what the hell we were do­ing any­way!”

For its time, how­ever, The Keep was – at least – an aes­thet­i­cally am­bi­tious project. The en­tire end bat­tle be­tween good and evil,

fea­tur­ing ex­ten­sive laser beams and bursts of colour­ful light, would to­day be ac­com­plished by CGI. In 1983, though, it was good old­fash­ioned ( but time con­sum­ing) an­i­ma­tion that ac­com­plished th­ese il­lu­sions.

More­over, the sparse Welsh moors add to the film’s des­o­late feel­ing while the dusty Ro­ma­nian for­ti­fi­ca­tion that houses the film’s phan­tom is noth­ing short of spooky. Ma­ley’s make- up work, mean­while, holds up well. Aside from the ex­pected gore ( which in­cludes one Hitler- sym­pa­this­ing schmuck be­ing split in two) the mon­ster that con­fronts the var­i­ous Nazi squad­dies is a hulk- and- a- half, in­tim­i­dat­ing and im­me­di­ately iconic.

long hard looks

“There are some movies that drive you a lit­tle crazy,” ad­mits Ma­ley. “But you still tend to do your very best. At the time I did The Keep I was based in Shep­per­ton Stu­dios any­way and I had a team of great guys work­ing with me. So we were flat out. You are not go­ing to be em­ployed ev­ery day of the year any­way, so when a good job comes along you don’t mind clock­ing in 16 or 17 hours a day. But when you are work­ing with some­one who, per­haps, isn’t be­ing co- oper­a­tive or is push­ing you to the end of your tether it can be in­cred­i­bly frus­trat­ing. With that said, all you can do – even in dif­fi­cult

“even­tu­ally Michael mann took com­plete con­trol of the car­nage”

cir­cum­stances – is turn out the best work you are ca­pa­ble of. No one is go­ing to put up words on the bot­tom of the cin­ema screen that say ‘ I know this part sucks but there is a good rea­son for it…’ Peo­ple will judge the movie that is out there. So my con­cern on The Keep was just get­ting the make- up work to look good – and if peo­ple re­sponded to that then, of course, I am pleased. I have al­ways em­braced the idea of try­ing to cre­ate some­thing orig­i­nal.”

The Keep’s sta­tus as a cult fave can be largely at­trib­uted to its cast. Ian McKellen, of course, adds in­stant class to almost any­thing he

ap­pears in, but he is sup­ported by some of the most pro­lific and un­der­rated per­form­ers of the 1980s. Chief among th­ese are Ir­ish th­es­pian Gabriel Byrne ( who would later ap­pear as Satan in the Sch­warzeneg­ger film End Of Days), Prochnow ( whose genre CV in­cludes Dune and Judge Dredd) and Scott Glenn, per­haps most fa­mous for his turn in The

Si­lence Of The Lambs. In ad­di­tion, a scorch­ing sound­track from ’ 80s prog- rock­ers Tan­ger­ine Dream and Mann’s typ­i­cally as­sured di­rec­tion – in­clud­ing the req­ui­site slow- mo shots of ul­tra- stylised misty malev­o­lence – give the fre­quently con­fus­ing tale an eerie but dis­tinctly el­e­gant touch.

“It is a film with very lit­tle hu­mour in it,” says Ma­ley. “It is not a movie you can laugh at. It is a very dark pic­ture to watch and it was twice as dark to make. For me, I can­not sep­a­rate the ex­pe­ri­ence of mak­ing a movie with sit­ting down and watch­ing it – and The

Keep was such a dif­fi­cult ex­pe­ri­ence that I didn’t want to re­visit it for a long, long time. I didn’t have any free­dom on it. It was very much Michael’s film.”

mann alive

Even as The Keep’s pro­duc­tion sched­ule in­creased the de­mands on its crew, Paramount con­tin­ued to prop up the promis­ing young film­maker who was call­ing the shots. So much so, in fact, that Ma­ley re­veals Mann even­tu­ally took com­plete con­trol of the car­nage him­self.

“I try very hard not to get in­volved in the pol­i­tics of a film. But it was dif­fi­cult to avoid that on The Keep. Michael Mann made him­self the pro­ducer of the movie. Very few direc­tors have that free­dom, of course, but in the case of

The Keep the stu­dio let him do it. It all took place in just one week­end. It was quite an im­pres­sive feat.”

Yet Mann would not quite come away with the au­teur project that he ini­tially en­vi­sioned. After hand­ing in a re­puted “di­rec­tor’s cut” which droned on for over three hours, the film­maker was forced by the stu­dio to fetch his scis­sors. Ul­ti­mately the hacked up ver­sion of

The Keep which hit the­atres in De­cem­ber 1983 was only 90 min­utes long, per­haps ex­plain­ing the plot’s no­table and fre­quent gaps in logic and co­her­ence.

Mak­ing mat­ters worse, the crit­i­cal re­cep­tion to Mann’s per­plex­ing su­per­nat­u­ral tale was gen­er­ally neg­a­tive.

“The thing that makes a re­ally good movie is not the ef­fects,” states Ma­ley. “There has to be some­thing more than that. You need a re­ally strong story. ET could have been Don­ald Duck and you would still have had a great film at the end of it. So when a movie doesn’t work so well it can be down to a lot of things… but mainly it is the story. In the end, The Keep was a large part of me leav­ing the movie in­dus­try. It wasn’t the only part – but it was cer­tainly one of the rea­sons. I al­ways said that when I stopped en­joy­ing my work I would do some­thing else.”

Even so, the legacy of The Keep lives on. Whilst Mann barely even men­tions the movie ( in­sist­ing it was a neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for him too), a le­gion of fans that dis­cov­ered the film on VHS have grown to ap­pre­ci­ate its oth­er­worldly essence. The Keep’s at­tempt to craft an adult fairy tale years be­fore Guillermo Del Toro per­fected the form with The Devil’s

Back­bone and Pan’s Labyrinth is per­haps part of this ap­peal. And it’s in those more ac­claimed out­ings that the film’s in­flu­ence re­ally lies. Even if we may never have the chance to of­fi­cially own the movie on Blu- ray or DVD, its rar­ity likely only adds to The Keep’s off- kil­ter cult ap­peal. Add to this Mann’s sub­se­quent su­per­star sta­tus and this ob­scure ex­am­ple of his early work be­comes all the more tan­ta­lis­ing.

For Ma­ley, though, The Keep led to fur­ther ad­ven­tures in big- bud­get moviemak­ing – in­clud­ing Tobe Hooper’s Life­force ( 1985) and the fran­chise- spawn­ing High­lander ( 1986) – un­til in 1987 he opted to do some­thing less stress­ful with his life.

“I went sail­ing in the Caribbean for a lit­tle while,” he laughs. “I painted on the beach and then some­one gave me the space to open a gallery. Even­tu­ally some of the cruise ships picked up on me as the guy who worked on all of th­ese movies and now I am vis­ited by fans from all around the world. What can I say? Drink­ing a pina co­lada on the beach is cer­tainly prefer­able to go­ing through The Keep again [ laughs].”

Jür­gen Prochnow, be­tween roles in Das Boot and Dune.

Scott Glenn and Al­berta Wat­son must stop the beast be­fore it is set free.

Dr Theodore Cuza, played by Ian McKellen, at­tempts to tame the mon­ster.

Nick Ma­ley’s team cre­ated nu­mer­ous prac­ti­cal ef­fects, adding to the at­mos­phere.

Mus­cles on the out­side. The de­fin­i­tive sign of an ul­ti­mate mon­ster men­ace.

As it ab­sorbs more life, the mon­ster’s form evolves.

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