The Keep

The Keep ★★★

Not so much the black sheep of Michael Mann's directorial career as the weird, inbred cousin they keep chained up in the attic, The Keep remains his only engagement to date with two of cinema's most popular genres, horror and war. To detail the plot is a near-impossibility. A lot of Mann's films have a convoluted plot, but The Keep is completely incomprehensible, and no wonder - Mann's original cut lasted for three and a half hours. Under duress he managed to get it down to two, then when the two-hour cut tested badly Paramount Studios reduced it to its current form, which gets to the end credits just after 90 minutes.

That would be disastrous for any movie, but The Keep is attempting to set up a detailed supernatural mythos alongside its character-driven plot. The result is bewildering, and the whole rhythm of the movie is off. The slow-motion, which Mann is usually a poet of, is dropped into the middle of scenes without rhyme or reason, and the sound mix keeps going from whispery to thunderous within the space of a scene. It's obvious that, at one point, these things flowed. You can see in his shots that Mann has constructed some kind of montage. Trying to discern it from the finished film, though, is like trying to read one of those apocryphal Gospels which only exist in tatters. "Jesus... he spake... Magdalene... close-up on Scott Glenn..."

For all that, The Keep is still strangely compelling. I think Mann must have watched Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr before he started working on this, as it shares that ambition to make a horror movie that almost totally eschews the genre's usual dark shadows in favour of soft lighting, mist and general greyish tones. If the flow between shots has been destroyed by studio re-editing, the shots themselves are unforgettably beautiful, and Mann handles the action as well as he usually does. The finale, in particular, is as close as we're ever going to get to a Michael Mann superhero movie, and it's hard not to cherish that. It also has a magnificent score by Tangerine Dream, and its monster - a gruesome rethinking of the Golem of Jewish myth - is one for the ages.

I haven't read F. Paul Wilson's original novel - he hated the film, so much that he later wrote a story about a writer laying a curse on a director who wrecked one of his works - so it's no reflection on his writing skills when I say the basic ingredients of The Keep feel like the pulpiest thing Hammer never made. It's all sadistic Nazis and mystic warriors and vengeful Golems kept in place by occult sigils, and when Ian McKellen enters he's giving the kind of big performance that such material would seem to demand. Then halfway through something happens to his character, and he becomes far closer to the kind of cool, capable, professional hero Mann generally makes films about. It's a remarkable transformation, but you don't need it to remind you that Mann's spirit is in here somewhere. Jumbled up though it may be, it's always obvious that there's a great movie imprisoned in it.

Anyone up for a look through Paramount's vaults?

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