Horror Movie Review – The Keep

October is a good excuse to watch horror movies—not that you really need an excuse—and browsing through Netflix I found this old gem. I’ve seen the ending to The Keep three or four times, but never the beginning. (That said, while I did remember most of the ending, for some reason I thought all the dry-ice smoke was pinky-purplish red. Who knows why. Maybe I figured its ’80s superhero SFX display wasn’t campy enough.) The film dates from 1983, under the guiding hand of rising star Micheal Mann.

The Keep is most notable for me because it’s one of the few Weird Wars movies: a horror film set during World War II, with heavy Gothic influences. Hell yeah. As a history buff, that’s a major plus. It also happens to be based on a series of novels, which I’ll have to track down so I can review them on Yellowed & Creased next October. I’m told it patches up a lot of the movie’s unanswered questions, so I’m putting it on my list.

Jürgen Prochnow plays a captain commanding a group of Wehrmacht soldiers, sent to guard an obscure mountain keep in Romania; Prochnow gives a solid performance. The set of the keep, not so much. Though it is passable, several scenes make it look either blatantly fake or blatantly stupid. Two greedy soldiers open up a secret passageway in the keep, releasing a demon hidden deep below centuries earlier. Germans start dying left and right, so an SS Einsatzgruppen is sent in to “pacify” the “partisans” lurking in the area. As Romania had allied itself to Germany—the 1930s European diplomacy chess-board is a fascinating thing—the German career captain butts heads with the thuggish SS officer.

The first half of the film is amazing. The pacing is well done, with the mysterious happenings drawing me in, with more than a little help from the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. Said soundtrack is worth noting; Tangerine Dream does great stuff, and this is just as bombastically eerie as everything else I’ve heard them do. Some of their best. The cinematography is spot-on, giving a serious feel of lurking dread, impending doom. It’s classic horror movie material; if you want to see some of the best horror movie footage in cinema history, watch this movie and pay attention to the first half.

The second half of the film begins to sag, which is a letdown, because the other stars appear. Ian McKellen is a Jewish professor, pulled out of the death camps to study the strange and mysterious writing that appears on the walls. He actually comes into contact with the adversary, and bargains with it, helping out so that it will kill Hitler and the Germans. This gets the plot really rolling, and threatens to doom them all.

There’s also Scott Glenn, wandering mystery-man with glowing eyes and severed wing-stubs on his shoulders; he arrives in order to stall the creature, and prevent its escape. Most of the second half’s letdown is due to bad pacing with Glenn’s character: he’s not fully explained, instead just showing up to defeat the monster after having a tryst with McKellen’s daughter. If he’s the guardian of the keep, why the hell is he so far away from it to begin with? Went off on smoke break and forgot to return? McKellen mumbles through his lines half the time, the other strange villagers are shown once or twice and forgotten, and the tension between the Wehrmacht and SS—much less their paranoia—is given the barest of lip service. There’s a nice display of cheesy ’80s special effects at the end, and then roll credits.

What a sadly unbalanced movie this is; if The Keep kept up the quality of its first act, it would have been more than a minor cult classic. Instead it’s mediocrity, great out of the gate, slow and incomplete when it counts. I still think it’s worth watching, but then again, it has Nazis and the occult, so I am a bit biased. I guess I should pay attention to the posters more; if the best they can do is something like the piece of bland for The Keep, it probably isn’t a hallmark of the genre.

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