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