F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep was published in August 1981 and was adapted to film as the sophomore project by writer/director Michael Mann, going into production in September 1982 and hitting theaters in December 1983. For just about any working author, that’s a fantastic turnaround. Unfortunately, the end result of the live-action version left a lot to be desired thanks to any number of failings on the studio’s part.

Beware going forward if you’re averse to spoilers, because we are going to be spoiling the living shit out of these projects. You have been warned.

First up, the novel!

The Keep was Wilson’s first foray into horror and it’s an extremely strong start. After reading a number of vampire novels, where the vampires were portrayed as heroes, both traditional and romantic, Wilson found the notion “ridiculous’ and decided to try his hand at a story where the vampire is a parasite pretending to be good, then took it a step further by creating a character pretending to be a vampire pretending to be “good”. Throw in a taste for Lovecraftian cosmic horror (rather than Lovecraftian entities) and a desire to contrast human with cosmic evil and we get Nazis hunted by a nightmarish monster from the dawn of time.

Set in the fictitious Dinu Pass in the Transylvanian Alps, Captain Klaus Woermann has been ordered to occupy an ancient keep in order to defend the passage to the oilfields of Ploiesti, Romania. It seems simple and out of the way enough that Woermann was given the job, as he is a German soldier who has refused to join the Nazi party. That is, until German High Command receives a telegram from Woermann stating simply: “Request immediate relocation. Something is murdering my men.”

Since Nazis are petty, backstabbing scum, SS Sturmbannfuhrer Erich Kaempffer is assigned to go clear up the mess before he moves on to establish a new concentration camp in Ploiesti, and if he can’t do it, somebody else will be tasked with moving up the power ladder and murdering innocents in Romania.

Our three other main characters, Jewish historian Dr. Theodore Cuza, his daughter, music historian Magda, and a mysterious olive-skinned redhead calling himself Glenn (his true name is Glaeken), are all drawn to the keep in one way or another – Nazi strongarm summons for the Cuzas and a mystical sense that horrifying evil is reawakening for Glenn – where an ultimate final confrontation with an ancient evil calling itself Rasalom takes place with the fate of humanity on the line.

Up until the final fifty-odd pages of this 400-page novel, Wilson leads us to believe that Rasalom, who until then is going by the name Molasar up until then (in a nod to the mystical tradition of concealing one’s true name), is an ancient vampire who fought alongside Vlad the Impaler before hiding out in the keep to avoid being hunted by a secret order of the Catholic Church. I have to admit, that as a reader I was a little disappointed in the vampiric reveal, but given that Wilson named H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith in the acknowledgments, I should have known that something larger was being set into motion.

And while I would have preferred to see more attention placed on what turns out to be an ancient battle between the forces of the Otherness and the forces of Light, stemming from the long-forgotten “First Age” of humanity, Wilson is forced to hold off on that until the plot allows for the revelation (in an infodump, unfortunately). By that time, the climax is at hand and we are swept up in a violent and bloody finale that establishes The Keep as a modern horror classic.

Wilson does a good job at establishing that these beings, Rasalom and Glaeken are beyond good and evil. They are ancient sorcerous warriors from before Atlantis, and the forces that gave each their powers and immortality also took away their reflections, so Rasalom is able to play on the vampiric tradition of having no reflection, while Glenn hides this from everyone he encounters. They are truly flip sides of the same coin, and one of Glenn’s concerns is basically about self-preservation; what happens to him if he kills Rasalom once and for all? Will the Light abandon him to die as well? This internal conflict also builds right up to the climax.  

In the meantime, we are treated to a masterful building of tension and establishing of character for both our heroes and villains as Nazis are picked off, one each night until the arrival of the Cuzas. After that, Dr. Cuza forms a dangerous alliance with Rasalom after the monster subtly undermines the doctor’s faith by pretending to fear the cross – which would mean that Christianity is the one true faith and Judaism is a dead end. This puts Cuza off-balance philosophically and emotionally, allowing Rasalom to manipulate him into helping him free himself from the keep.

Along the way to this, each of the characters are given narrative arcs that allow for a satisfying conclusion and along the way we are treated to a variety of violent and gory moments involving decapitations, hangings, and shambling corpses as well as a romance between Magda and Glenn. This novel really has a little bit of everything for the reader and works as either a standalone novel, as it was originally written, or as the first chapter in the six-book Adversary Cycle which sprung up around it as the years passed.

Being set in Europe, The Keep became an international sensation, bucking the contemporary trend of writing Stephen King-like small-town horror, and becoming Wilson’s all-time best seller, remaining continuously in-print through a variety of publishers over the years. By 1984 it had sold a million copies. So naturally, The Keep was ripe for a film adaptation almost immediately after hitting the stands.

Enter Michael Mann.

Jumping from television directing to feature films with 1981’s instant heist classic, Thief, Michael Mann’s second film was a dramatic change of pace. From the very start, The Keep was a troubled shoot, beginning in September 1982 and stretching over 13 weeks, which doesn’t include the additional 9 weeks of re-shoots. It was a grueling and extremely demanding schedule that wore down nearly everyone involved.

However, perhaps the greatest blow to the production was the untimely death of visual effects supervisor Wally Veevers, known for his work on classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Diamonds are Forever (1971), and Superman (1978). Throughout the course of filming, Mann never decided on how he wanted the monster Molasar to look (although it seems that French comics legend Enki Bilal and Nick Maley of Superman and Empire Strikes Back (1980) fame, were involved in the design) and the proposed finale had to be scrapped because no one knew how Veevers had planned to visualize the final battle between good and evil beyond the idea that it would involve a similar feel as the finale of 2001. Mann, himself, ended up finalizing 260 special effects shots after Veevers’ death.

The Romanian village sets were built at the Glyn Rhonwy quarry in North Wales, with some of the keep’s interiors being shot within the Llechwedd Slate Caverns near Blaenau Ffestiniog, however heavy rains caused significant delays and the film quickly went over budget, leading Paramount Pictures to refuse funding additional footage for the originally planned ending – an epic effects-laden battle between Glenn and Molasar on top of the keep’s tower. The cast and crew worked 16-hour days in the cold rain, and everything had to be lowered into the 150-foot-deep quarry.

Mann eventually turned in a 210-minute cut that he then had to trim down to a studio-mandated two-hour runtime. After poor test screenings, Paramount stepped in and cut the film down to 96 minutes against Mann’s wishes, and the original release date of June 3, 1983 was bumped to December 16. Some of these cut or extended scenes were eventually included in the trailers and the 80s TV release. They have not made it to any home video release.

After failing at the box office, The Keep was released on laserdisc and VHS with no official DVD or Blu-ray release until January 20, 2020, when it was released on DVD in Australia. For those of you interested in checking it out, the DVD is region-free and looks great. The only extra included is the theatrical trailer though, so whether it’s worth it or not is up to you.

The film diverges from the book in a number of ways while still somehow remaining somewhat faithful to the basic source material. The biggest change to me is in the way Mann approached the material. Rather than keeping it firmly in the realm of horror, the writer-director opted for a more expressionistic, fairy tale approach, leaning into a dreamlike quality that, when combined with the etheric score by Tangerine Dream (which has its own convoluted history of release), sometimes gives the film an otherworldly quality similar to segments of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) or Legend (1985) without the sense of scale, or Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981), but without the visceral gore.

As for the basic plot, Mann’s script opted to avoid the vampire red herring that was central to the main thrust of Wilson’s novel; a change which Wilson noted, made the Transylvania setting pointless. Instead, Mann chose to focus on the dramatic triangle of Molasar, Glaeken (Scott Glenn), and Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen) with Magda, now Eva (Alberta Watson) left out of the proceedings nearly altogether – except for a very awkward and unearned instant “romance” with Glaeken, ending in an extremely strange crucifixion pose climax for both characters. However, even the focus on Dr. Cuza here misses the novel’s thematic point of demonstrating how Rasalom’s power came from corrupting Cuza’s faith while in Mann’s version, Cuza is an atheist to begin with and simply joins forces with the monster based on the healing of his terminal illness and the promise to kill Hitler. It’s a shallower approach that sidesteps questions of faith, which makes the only religious conflict in the film between Cuza and his old friend, the village priest, Father Fonescu (Robert Prosky), which starts out friendly enough, but devolves into simplistic shouting.

In truth, none of the characters are allowed the time to breathe and develop over the course of the film. But that’s most likely due to the studio’s forced cuts. I have no doubt that a 210-minute version would have helped to flesh out all of the characters’ motivations and allowed for the performances to really shine. As it stands, most of the actors do the best they can with the material they are given. McKellen tends to chew the scenery as much as possible and Glenn plays Glaeken as almost alien – which is in line with Mann’s intent. The Nazis are played by Jurgen Prochnow and Gabriel Byrne with Prochnow being given the best material to work with as the more sympathetic Woermann. Byrne plays Kaempffer as suitably evil, though, and I would love to see what nuance the extended cut allowed.

The cuts also give short shift to one of the most intriguing and disturbing elements of the novel, where, as Rasalom’s power grows, the villagers find themselves falling under his influence, becoming short-tempered and anxious, before sliding into outright paranoia and murder. In the film, all we see of this is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Father Fonescu eating a dog on his church’s alter. Seriously. Blink and you’ll miss it entirely.

Back to Mann’s changes, two other major divergences from the source also color the end results, possibly in spite of the cuts. Thanks to eliminating the vampiric element, Molasar has to be revisualized from the humanoid form in the novel, with pale skin, lank dark hair and shining eyes, and the end result is so absurd that undermines nearly every scene in which he appears. Starting out as animated lights in billowing clouds of smoke (a la Raiders of the Lost Ark or Lifeforce), Molasar first appears in the flesh in a skinless musclebound form that reminded me of Frank from Hellraiser (although that film wouldn’t be made until 1987) on steroids, and as he kills Nazis he eventually becomes a fully, if-poorly-realized, monster.

Another complaint I have is that we see very little actual Nazi killing, which helps to neuter the development of tension that the novel nailed so strongly. Instead after the creature’s release we hard cut to Woermann being informed that after five nights of murders, they haven’t heard anything from Germany. That is, until Kaempffer roles into the village on cue.

Anyway, the design is horrible. Which is driven home when Scott Glenn arrives and begins to mirror Molasar’s build before the final battle. At least Molasar is a built-up costume. Glenn is forced to act with massive prosthetic devices glued to him to mimic Molasar’s absurd musculature and facial structure. I know that thematically, Mann was intending to make it clear that they were similar beings, but it just looks bad.

The second big change doesn’t sound like much, but the odd crosses that keep Molasar trapped in the keep are modeled on the mystical hilt of Glaeken’s sword, which in the novel leads to an epic physical battle, but in the film becomes just a cross-shaped item that is tacked onto what can only be described as an energy-beam tube, or a “cosmic raygun” as Wilson called it. That means that the final confrontation degenerates into cartoon energy bolts fired back and forth for a few seconds before Molasar is sucked down the hole from which he came, followed shortly by Glaeken, and the earth is saved.

Cue a freezeframe shot of Magda/Eva looking back as she leaves the keep, before hard cutting to a title card reading, “A Micheal Mann Film.”

To be fair, this cliché ending is the studio’s doing, as Mann intended to mirror the book’s ending, with Magda/Eva finding Glaeken/Glenn alive and they could then live happily ever after. I’m not sure how I feel about this, to be honest. Given all the cuts, and the way the film missed the mark on developing any of the characters and their relationships, it would have felt even more forced than their romance in the first place, but without an option for filming an alternative, I suppose the freeze-frame was the studio’s only real choice. The book earned its ending, and it allowed Wilson to eventually bring Glaeken back in sequel novels.

While it sounds like I hate this movie, I honestly don’t. It’s not a good film by any means, but there’s still a lot to enjoy. Tangerine Dream’s score is wonderful and despite the release drama detailed in the link above, it looks like it was finally released in 2007 and remastered in 2020. Michael Mann’s use of light and shadow is simply gorgeous, foreshadowing some of the magnificent work he would go on to do in both film and television. The set design is amazing, and the cinematography makes this film look as good as humanly possible. Honestly, in the opening act, I thought there was no way this film could be as bad as rumored. I had fond memories of seeing it on HBO when I was a child and I always had a soft spot in my heart for it.

That spot’s not so soft now, but I’d be lying if I said I regretted picking up the Australian DVD. This is a film that despite not living up to the source material, deserves a place on my shelf. Just not a place higher than F. Paul Wilson’s original novel. If there was ever a film that deserved a big-budget remake, it’s The Keep, although I think it’s tailor made for a prestige TV series.

All screen shots in the body of this article are credited to Blu-ray.com forum user Katatonia and sourced from the Australian DVD release.

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