In my head, The Keep is a movie full of long, abstract sequences and magically atmospheric music from Tangerine Dream, a tale of Lovecraftian horror about an ancient evil reawakened by Nazi atrocities, featuring such renowned and enjoyable actors as Jürgen Prochnow, Ian McKellen, Gabriel Byrne and Scott Glenn. In my head, it works.
What we get onscreen is another matter, a product of disagreements between director and studio. The film is less than ninety minutes long; Mann’s original cut lasted three and a half hours. There’s glimpses of the material’s potential in a few artsy sequences and evocative sets, and Tangerine Dream’s score is sometimes successful. When people are talking, however, the movie becomes embarrassingly bad. (It doesn’t help that the film’s worst set is where many of the most lengthy conversations take place.) None of the dialogue is anywhere near as clever as it wants to be, managing to clumsily spell out some of the conflicts while failing to explain others. There’s plenty of room for exploring nuances of evil here, but the script just cannot do it.
The dialogue alone makes it hard for the characters to be convincing. Prochnow is the only actor who manages to keep me focused on his performance rather than what he is saying. The rest look like they have no idea what they’re doing (though I don’t blame them). McKellen is hardest to watch; he’s unbelievably dreadful at times. Even in his better moments he’s let down by the fact that he’s playing a Romanian and yet has been told by the director to adopt a Chicagoan accent.
Dr Cuza (McKellen), his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson), and mystery man Glaeken (Glenn) are the most important characters in the film, but they’re introduced too late, and not made real enough. There’s no emotional believability to anything they do. Eva falls in love with Glaeken bewilderingly fast, seemingly because they happen to be in the same room together. She really should be thinking about whether or not to flee the Nazis while leaving her father their prisoner, as he’s told her to do. That seems kind of important. With the love story so unconvincing, and the father-daughter relationship more detailed yet poorly written, The Keep loses all hope of having an impact. Some of the sequences toward the end meld music and wordless imagery in a surprisingly stirring way, and are good enough that I wish I had actually been able to care about what was happening.
Lastly, the film is far too special effects reliant. Never mind that the effects are dated; that’s inevitable. Seeing the supernatural forces involved is not only disappointing, but more importantly, it makes the story less mysterious. More suggestion and tension, and less flashy lightning-thingies, please.
The Keep’s premise may sound promising, but if you like the principal talents involved, you’ll almost certainly feel let down by their work here. Ironically, while a longer film could have had the room to make the characters more solid, as it is, I was just glad that it was over quickly.