December 4, 2012

Retroview: The Keep (1983)

A Retroview Review.
Luke here, talking about one of my new favorite movies, The Keep. Gotta be honest, I added it to my queue purely because of how badass the poster is.  I was not disappointed.

The Keep, adapted from an F. Paul Wilson novel, feels an awful lot like a book.  Several storylines are established, and we watch as they intertwine.  The basic plot outline is that some Nazi's come to a small Romanian town that happens to have a mysterious citadel (the titular "keep").  The Nazi's set up camp inside the citadel, and promptly start dying, mysteriously, after screwing around with the nickel crosses on the walls.  Higher-up Nazi's come to help figure out what's going on, just as cryptic writing appears on a wall in the citadel, also mysteriously, and a Jewish archaeologist/linguist (Ian McKellen) is called in to assist.  Also, a mysterious unnamed man is shown traveling toward the citadel from Greece (Scott Glenn as Glaeken Trismegestus).  A demon shows up (who is totally not Mephisto), and things get really messy for everyone.  I know it sounds like I'm making fun of this movie, and I kind of am, but I seriously loved it.  This movie packs a serious punch, with visuals that are more stimulating than a lot of things I've seen recently, and several meta-statements that I was absolutely blown away by.  Plus Tangerine Dream does the score, mysteriously.

The line that establishes what I believe to be the crux of the movie is spoken maybe 15, 20 minutes in, by Trismegestus while he is making his way towards the citadel.  A guard on the road stops him, and asks him where he is going, to which he responds "Into the past."  (let me just say I think the line is meant to convey some sort of "spooky," otherworldly task, or be a reference to the fact that he's going to an old citadel with an old demon in it, but there is so much more to it than just that, as I'll explain).

The people who made up the Greatest Generation went through hell.  World Wars, The Depression, the Suburbs [;)], you name it they suffered it.  But there is a reassuring and beautiful sense of hope and perseverance associated with the stories set in their era, one that is lacking from pieces both made in the common era, and those depicting the common era.  It's as though the only way they kept going was because of the idea that there had to be, there must be something better than what they were going through.  The Keep is as much a statement on war, and men(/Nazi's) playing god/pridefully thinking themselves worthy of the power of god, as it is a testament to man's tenacity in the face of adversity, as well as a criticism of man's many faults. But I find it to be key that The Keep is a statement about those statements being made in the 1940's, in a movie made in the 1980's. It's is a movie looking back ... into the past ... to make a statement about WWII from the point of view of someone in 1983.

Americans are in love WWII, and have been since probably before it even started (j/k). We can't stop thinking about it, and Hitler. My friend Royce, library employee, once told me that the books that were checked out the most were books on WWII. This fascination/romanticization of this era may come from the fact that there was an actual "clear and present" danger/enemy, someone who, ironically, was a scapegoat for every problem in the world (and pretty reasonably so).

Which brings us back to the Keep, where the enemy for much of the movie is unclear; an invisible, unknowable darkness that had no known feature or desire, and may be an entity void of reason. At one point, SD Officer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), the head of the Nazi's who came to town to help the first team of Nazi's, starts shooting the townsfolk as a way to strike fear in their hearts, so as to stir them to rat out whoever is killing the Nazi's (this does not, of course, work). Captain Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow), head of the first team of Nazi's, knows it is not the doing of the towns people, and does not approve of the unabashed murdering of innocent people. After the first round of killing, Woermann compares Kaempffer to the entity he and his men fear is the cause of the deaths. When he does this, it is more than just an attempt to call out the futility of Kaempffer's actions, or an allusion to compare the then stifling power of Nazi Germany to an unknowable unnatural force.  It is to insert into the movie an enemy that the people of 1980 could relate to.  Yes there were warlords and dictators in 1980, but no one was Hitler's equal ... there was no one evil that could be pointed at and focused on, so it was as though evil was everywhere, all the time.  And when you put an omnipresent evil into your WWII horror movie, not only does it amp up the terror factor, it makes it a lot more relatable to audiences of the 1980's ... heck it still works to this day.

And all this is within the first half of the movie!

At almost exactly the half way point, the demon, Radu Molasar (Michael Carter), finally appears, and the movie makes a fairly dramatic left turn.  There is a huge Faustian(ish) style deal that goes down (adding to the whole "man's pride" and "man's faults" ideas), and a load of other things that you just have to see to really believe.  Admittedly, it has it's faults.  It doesn't really have any strong female characters, and the one female character that is in it is kind of just used as a plot device.  It's also kind of scattered, in that the crew may have bit off more than they could chew in adapting F. Paul Wilson's book.  Each scene feels like a new chapter, which makes sense considering the origin of the story, but it's an effect that could be repelling to some viewers.  On top of that, there is no real protagonist, which makes it hard for the characters to seem relatable ... though I think it serves a different purpose.  It makes it easier to get into the mood of the movie, as though you are just as much a foreigner to this world as the characters, alienated in an uncanny, mysterious world.

Bizarre, terrifying, mindblowingly ridiculous, The Keep has never seen a legit release on DVD, and there are currently no plans to see it.  You can only get it on Laserdisc, VHS, or Netflix Instant Watch.  Watch somehow, tell your friends, and ask them to do the same, so that one day we can get a Criterion Collection of this amazing movie.

---Luke Hunter James-Erickson

As a side note, Sir Ian Murray McKellen's role as the ancient language expert has him playing an old, wrinkled man ... in 1983 ... when he himself was a sprightly 44 years old.  Has this man never had a role where he isn't ancient?  He probably played Antonio in Much Ado About Nothing, his first major acting gig...

Also, this trailer looks like crap, and the rip that is currently on Youtube looks just as bad.  It is Crystal Clear on Netflix.  I can't stress this enough, this trailer makes it look like it was made with video camera intended to record America's Funniest Home Videos, but here it is anyway...

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