This is definitely not your grandfather's World War II movie. What am I talking about it? This is probably not your father's World War II movie, either, and he wasn't even alive during the war; the only action he ever saw involved a somewhat heated argument pertaining to a pastrami sandwich and its perceived lack of mustard. Yes, it's true. I'm usually the first one to get their cotton panties in a bunch over World War II movies that deviate from the history books. But with The Keep (a.k.a. La Forteresse Noire), Michael Mann's metaphysical, Faustian, Naziploitation-esque follow up to Thief, I think I'm gonna keep my panties where they belong. You know this version of the war that defined a century is going to different straight out the gate. How so, you ask? Well, we get a close-up shot of the rain-soaked tank treads on an armoured troop carrier grinding away on a muddled road paired with the music of Tangerine Dream, that's how. Think of all the war movies you have seen over the years. Okay, now try to recall one that featured tank treads and lush synthesizer music. You know why you're not coming up with anything? That's because there's never been a film like this. Transporting the action from the location of his previous film (the neon-adorned streets of early 1980s Chicago) to the mist-laden forests of Romania circa 1943 was actually a lot smoother than you would think. In Thief, Michael Mann uses the safes and vaults the protagonist repeatedly breaks into as a metaphor for his spiritual confinement. However, in The Keep, based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson, the antagonist, a mysterious entity that lives inside an ancient citadel, wants to leave its prison-like walls. In other words, one man needs to enter a box to attain freedom, while another needs to vacate one. And this ain't no ordinary box, it's a large fortress in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains. The connection between the two films hits its zenith when we watch two Wehermacht soldiers attempting to steal one of the many what they perceive to be silver crosses (they're actually made out of nickle) that cover the walls of the keep, as it reminded me of James Caan's antics from Thief. Only difference being, James Caan didn't get his soul sucked out of his mouth, eyes, and ears by a thousand year-old demon. Or, at least I don't think he did.
Rumbling through the forest, a modest convey of military vehicles enter a village. And while that might sound like a routine way to start a movie, the step up is filled with enough unique flourishes to satisfy even the most jaded of film fans. A close up of a cigar being lit, steely pair of piercing blues eyes, trees, mud, an ominous sky, trucks filled with Germans, and, of course, Tangerine Dream's thundering music on the soundtrack, The Keep immediately establishes itself as a Michael Mann film. Welcome to the Dinu Pass in Romania, it's 1943, and a group of German soldiers, lead by Captain Klaus Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow) have been told to occupy a keep.
Entering it in dramatic fashion, Klaus meets Alexandru (William Morgan Sheppard), the caretaker, who gives him a vague history lesson about its origins. Meaning, he doesn't really tell him anything. Oh, sure, he tells him there are 108 crosses made out of nickle on the walls, and that no-one ever stays here. Curious about the latter, Klaus asks if the reason no-one ever spends the night has anything to do with ghosts or demons, to which the caretaker replies: no, not ghosts. You'll notice that he didn't include "demons" in his answer to Klaus's query. Interesting. Anyway, the rest of his men enter the keep and begin to set up shop.
Thinking the crosses are made out of silver, two Klaus's men start tamper with them. Still giving Klaus the tour, Alexandru catches wind of this tampering, and tells them: "Never touch the crosses! Never!" I loved the way Sheppard delivered this line. In fact, if I was in an industrial band, I would have suggested that we sample it on one of our songs. Yeah, that's right. It's that powerful of a delivery. We get a shot of the creepy, forbidding sky above the keep shortly after he makes this cross-based proclamation, which can't be a good sign.
Do you have a thing for German soldiers who walk in slow motion while wearing camouflage rain gear? What kind question is that? Of course I do. The better question would be: Who doesn't? Well then, have I got a treat for you. The two soldiers who were messing with the crosses are assigned to night watch as punishment. Obviously unfazed by the caretaker's dire warning, the two soldiers decide to take another crack at the crosses. Still convinced that they're made out of silver, they successfully remove one of them from the wall. Unveiling a narrow passageway, one of the soldiers, determined to find more silver, enters the passageway. And I don't have to tell you what happens next. That's right, Scott Glenn wakes up in a flophouse in Greece and his eyes begin to glow. What the fuck?!? You heard me. Your greed has awoken a slumbering Scott Glenn.
If you thought watching two Germans in camouflage rain gear poking around inside a cavernous corridor set to the music of Tangerine Dream was super-cool, than you clearly haven't experienced the sight of a glowy-eyed Scott Glenn packing his bags and hoping aboard a boat to Romania set to the music of Tangerine Dream, as there's nothing cooler than Scott Glenn when he's on the move. The synths! The water! The sky! The Scott Glenn! Who would have thought that a simple shot of a boat floating on the water could be so freaking compelling? Not me, that's for sure. And I'm the de facto president of the Tangerine Dream Nautical Appreciation Society.
Who or what killed those greedy, cross-tampering Germans in the keep? It's a mystery. Well, it's not a mystery to Klaus's superiors, who decide to send in re-enforcements to help Klaus battle partisans. Wait a minute. Partisans? Yeah, they think the two soldiers were killed by partisans, so they send an SS officer named Major Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) and merry band of Einsatzgruppen. The contrast between Klaus's relatively uneventful arrival and Kaimpffer's was immediate, as the SS execute three local men without delay. This contrast in styles plays out throughout the film, as Prochnow and Byrne constantly clash with one another over the future of Germany. You could see their relationship as the battle between the sane, rational Germany and the Germany that is insane and irrational. I don't have tell you which Germany one won out in the end. Neither, as the cemeteries (and roadside shallow graves) were filled with both by war's end.
A message written in an unknown language has suddenly appeared on the wall of the keep, and it has the Germans flummoxed. The town's priest Father Mihail Ionescu (Robert Prosky) has no idea what it says, as it's written in a combination of Cyrillic and Latin. There is, however, a man, a Jewish man, who can translate it, but he's currently "living" in a concentration camp with his smoking hot daughter. Convinced that it would be in their best interest to seek out this man's linguistic talents, the Germans "welcome" Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) to the keep with open yet suspicious arms.
Meanwhile, Scott Glenn, whose character is actually called "Glaeken Trismegestus," but I like to call him, "Scott Glenn," is whizzing through the verdant Romanian countryside on his motorcycle. I was pleased to see that the producers made an effort to get authentic-looking Romanian military uniforms for the guards who man the check point Scott Glenn comes across on his journey, as little details like that are usually ignored. At any rate, Scott Glenn makes his eyes glow and junk when one of the guards tries to sass him, which, of course, causes the sassy guard to freak out.
In case you haven't figured it out yet, nothing, not even poorly applied sass, is gonna stop Scott Glenn from reaching his destination. On top confronting evil forces, Scott Glenn has the throbbing confines of Alberta Watson's exceedingly moist pussy waiting for him on a crotch-based platter. Wait. You didn't think Alberta Watson was gonna let a bunch of Wehrmacht soldiers and Nazi thugs grope her tan, Tin Drum-esque stockings, did you? Oh, sure, a couple of the latter try to grope their delicate softness using force, but their heads are quickly blown up by Radu Molasar, the actual name of the keep's mysterious creature, before they can start. With each head he blows up (some of which are blown up real good), Radu Molasar becomes stronger, more powerful. However, he needs a human to assist his transformation from a skinless smoke monster to a fully-formed golem, and chooses Dr. Kuza, because he's weak and feeble, and has it in for the Germans, particularly the one's wearing black.
Curing Dr. Kuza of his many ailments (his skin was sickly) simply by touching him (the makers of Altered States called, they want their special effects back), Molasar enlists the newly spry linguistics professor to help procure a talisman, one that will enable him to leave the keep. Of course, he doesn't realize yet, but Scott Glenn and his bony ass are on a collision course.
As with the majority of Michael Mann's films, The Keep is completely devoid of humour and mirth. Yet, that doesn't mean you won't find yourself giggling like a school girl who giggles at the sight of Scott Glenn wielding a giant pink glow stick. You heard right. A supreme evil is about to be unwittingly unleashed onto the world by Sir Ian McKellen, and the only way to stop it is for Scott Glenn to blast it with a pink ray of pure fabulousness while the music of Tangerine Dream blasts on the soundtrack. It's moments like this that caused to me to become inexplicably enamoured with this film. Serious as a heart attack, yet, at same time, extremely weird (Scott Glenn and Alberta Watson have Tantric sex at one point), the sometimes hokey gothic-style chiller will leave you perplexed and mildly entertained.
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Special thanks to Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] for recommending this strange little movie.