The Keep is an early ‘80s horror film that’s never made it to DVD or Blu-ray, at least not stateside, for two big reasons; obtaining Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack rights has proven tricky, and writer/director Michael Mann (Collateral, Heat) has pretty much disowned the film. Mann envisioned the film to be an expressionistic, grown-up fairytale complete with dream-like qualities and a two-hour run time. Poor test screenings resulted in Paramount trimming the film down to a 96-minute run time, against Mann’s wishes, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg of the troubled production that makes The Keep such an odd standout in the catalog of ‘80s horror.
Adapted from a novel of the same name by F. Paul Wilson, The Keep is set in 1941 and tells of a group of Nazis taking refuge in an isolated castle in the Romanian mountains. When they inadvertently free an ancient evil from its prison within, an entity named Molasar, they turn to a Jewish historian to help them stop it from killing them all. In turn, it also sets ancient force of good Glaeken on a quest to face off against his foe one last time. It’s an interesting premise and easy to see why Mann would want to adapt it, except Mann didn’t really like the book. Remember that part about the director envisioning the film as dream-like and expressionistic? Made even less coherent by the major cuts to the run time, The Keep plays like a detached, incoherent battle between good and evil, except none of the characters really seem all that important. In the novel, Molasar is perceived as a vampiric creature throughout most of the narrative, only morphing into something else by the end.
Makeup effects supervisor and prosthetics designer Nick Maley (Krull, Lifeforce) had the extremely difficult task of creating the creature and makeup design for The Keep. Initially, Molasar was an intangible being who would gradually take a shape influenced by the setting during his appearances. This nondescript description gave Maley very little to work with in terms design, and it was complicated even further by Mann’s changing his mind on the creature, on occasion. It sure didn’t help that Mann wanted complete control over the development of the makeup and creature effects, wanting the design to look exactly like he pictured it.
The vision that Mann settled on for Molasar begins with the evil appearing as a ball of energy that slowly becomes more humanoid with every appearance. First Molasar looks mostly like a walking nervous system, next he has more skeletal forms, then muscles, until a strangely statuesque Golem-like final look. Maley and his team were also tasked with creating mechanical versions of Molasar, but the work went unused when Mann decided he wanted to see more of the creature on screen.
Since Molasar is a 7-foot-tall monster, that made the mechanical effects impossible to use, so he was turned into a man in a suit instead.
Two weeks into post-production, visual effects supervisor Wally Veevers (Superman, The Rocky Horror Picture Show) unexpectedly passed away, with still hundreds of effects needing to be completed and no one quite sure of Veevers’ original plans for them. Because of this, Mann wanted to re-do the ending, which originally was to be a massive special effects-driven battle between Molasar and hero Glaeken (Scott Glenn). But the production was already over budget and overlong, and Paramount wasn’t keen to grant more money. So, Mann had to go with a much simpler conclusion to his sprawling adult fairy tale.
It also meant scenes that would’ve shown the Nazis meeting grisly ends at the hands of Molasar went unfilmed.
There’s a lot about The Keep that should’ve worked. An impressive cast filled with names like Gabriel Byrne, Scott Glenn, Ian McKellen, and Jürgen Prochnow, with Mann’s stunning visual style and a story based on a best-selling novel all had the makings for an event horror film. Yet it was Mann’s decision to opt for a phantasmagorical style of storytelling, indecisiveness on the main villain, and massive trimming of Mann’s two-hour film that resulted in a not very coherent movie centered around a not so impressive body-building Golem thing. Tangerine Dream’s score is a vital asset, though, and has helped the film amass a cult following over the years. We’ll likely never get to see the film Mann intended, which would have given Glaeken a happier ending and fleshed out a lot of the character work and relationships, so The Keep falls under the category of the story behind the film being much more interesting that the final film. As it stands, it’s the strange movie that marks the first and last time Mann dove into full-blown horror (He did direct Manhunter a few years later, but it’s crime-based and not in the same fantastical realm).