Saturday, 30 January 2021

Tangerine nightmares… The Keep (1983)

This film is the very definition of a cult classic, troubled production, rare soundtrack by Krautrock electronic innovators Tangerine Dream and an end product occasionally disowned by it’s creator Michael Mann. Based on F. Paul Wilson’s novel, the writer even went to the extent of creating his own graphic novel as he wanted a “visual presentation of The Keep, my version of the movie, what could have been ... what should have been."

Wilson does concede that the film is “visually intriguing” and the aesthetic is certainly very string throughout, on a set built into an abandoned Welsh mine near Llanberis. Some interior scenes were filmed in the endlessly bleak Llechwedd Slate Caverns, near Blaenau Ffestiniog, whilst the remainder used sets in Shepperton Studios. Mann succeeds in making the keep oppressive and strange but what we have is less than a two-hour film cut from a much longer version and so some aspects of the narrative make more sense than others… then again, it’s a concept that leaves the audience to make up its own interpretation and it made sense to me.


The score has long been a holy grail for fans of Tangerine Dream and, after a limited release, it has been the subject of quite a few bootlegs over the last forty years and has only now just had its first fuller release as part of the Pilots of Purple Twilight (The Virgin Recordings 1980-1983) boxset. The score was the group’s second with Mann after Thief and is an integral part of the atmosphere as well as the narrative of the film. There are moments where the sounds of Froese, Franke and Schmoelling are diegetic, indicating actual movements within the Keep, the demon Molasar building force and dread descending. It’s fascinating hearing their scoring at this stage and music that is more experimental than their more mainstream albums of the time… all a long way from their early efforts for Ohr in Germany and Virgin from Phaedra up to Stratosfear and probably Cyclone.


As with other scores such as Sorcerer and Thief, the music works broadly across the narrative occasionally dipping straight into the action and always full of a surfeit of ideas. They’re inspired by the visuals and their range of tonality and themes is more compelling than rather blander affairs such as White Eagle of Hyperborea. At least in my opinion. It could also be that their music makes more sense with visuals attached and The Keep is the perfect “video” to accompany them with its shadowy disconnection and sense of dread. It’s hard to separate the two and by the end when the suspense has dwindled following the appearance of the previously invisible threat, the music helps to maintain the atmosphere through to the end.

The film is set in the Second World War as a unit of the Wehrmacht under the command of Capt. Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) sets up camp in an uninhabited citadel in Romania as part of an effort to control the Dinu Mountain Pass. There’s a strange atmosphere in the village and as the troops take up positions in the huge, cavernous entry of the Keep, they are warned by the locals of unnamed secrets within but of course, take no notice.

Jürgen Prochnow looks for meaning

Two soldiers try to prise the odd t-shaped silver moulds from the walls and are stripped of their flesh by a terrific force. Over the following days more soldiers die until a detachment of Einsatzkommandos under the command of the sadistic SD Sturmbannführer Eric Kaempffer (a very youthful Gabriel Byrne) arrives and starts shooting the locals automatically assuming that they are to blame despite Woermann’s protests.

Clearly a more nuanced approach is needed to prevent further deaths and after seeking the help of the local priest Father Fonescu (Robert Prosky) the Germans send for a Jewish historian, Professor Theodore Cuza – played by Ian McKellan – who arrives in a frail condition with his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) from a concentration camp… There is so much malevolence and clearly the Nazi’s have more than met their match; watching them attempt to control this new enemy as they have most of Europe is clearly wish fulfilment.

Ian McKellan and Akberta Watson

They carry on calling the shots, or rather Kaempffer does, as the darkness persists and the being, Molasar, establishes contact with Cuza, restoring his health after destroying two Germans attempting to assault Eva, and starting to work a bargain in exchange.

Meanwhile, miles away wanderer with a purpose, Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn), senses the revival of this ancient evil and begins to make his way over to the village. This is a man on a mission and clearly, he knows what’s happening even if no one else does. He takes the only room in the village hostelry which just happens to be occupied by Eva who has been sent to safety by her father, one thing leads to another and Eva and Glaeken exchange more than just pleasantries… all of which adds to the sense of purposeful connection.

Alberta Watson and Scott Glen

Tensions rise as Moasar’s evil affects the villagers and the soldiers alike leading to a confrontation between Kaempffer and Woermann as Der Professor must decide between his conscience and revenge on the country that has brutalised his race… it’s a breathless finale and not only not what you might expect but also not quite what Mann originally intended.

Budget and other constraints led to at least two endings being ditched and so what we have is one of several possibilities even though it works well enough in dramatic and emotional terms.

Dusty Verdict: The Keep successfully bears the weight of most of its failures and missed opportunities and is fascinating to watch. It’s rather low ranking on IMDB and elsewhere is perhaps more down to debate on its release because, watching for the first time almost forty years, on it’s intriguing and unsettling in equal measure and, with the aid of Tangerine Dream, very atmospheric and tense.


It’s also got Ian McKellan in it for Pete’s sake along with other strong performers in Jürgen Prochnow and Alberta Watson especially.

Well worth seeking out and who knows, one day maybe there’ll be a version closer to Mann’s original four-hour vision… but don’t hold your breath. Maybe someone will do another graphic novel…



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