Well it's that time again. Time for me to go spelunking into the darker recesses of hard to find horror. Normally I hit up one of Austin's prestigious local videostores to track down a VHS gem that was never polished enough to shine on DVD. But today's entry is going to be a little different. Today I've gotten my hands on the horror equivalent of unobtanium. I have managed to secure a laserdisc copy of Michael Mann's fantasy/horror classic The Keep. You remember laser discs right? They were roughly the size of a large pizza and required a player that would put serious strain on the foundation of your home should you actually install one in your livingroom. They were essentially a precursor to DVD; laserdisc is to DVD as St. Louis Cardinals Mark Mcgwire is to Oakland A's Mark Mcgwire. Everyone remembers VHS because it was a format that caught on and was prevalent for many years, but laserdisc never found the same toehold and thus its collapse went largely unnoticed. But as an unofficial defender of lost formats, I have obtained a laserdisc player and actually bought this film sight unseen on ebay. Let's see if I escape The Keep with my mammoth player in tow.
The Keep takes place in Nazi-occupied Romania. The German military has discovered a castle of local legend which they plan to exploit for their own purposes. They are struck by the design of the castle in that it is extremely fortified from within. As if the castle was designed to keep something in instead of keep anything out. They are warned profusely not to disturb any of the artifacts and especially not to venture into the inner reaches of the keep. They, being dirty Nazi liars, immediately venture to the core of the keep and release an evil that threatens to destroy the whole world. They realize that what they need is an expert in the occult to help them battle the monster. Turns out the best in the business just so happens to be in Germany...in a concentration camp. Will they be able to find him in time? Will he even agree to help them? What's with this freaky music?
I enjoyed The Keep to no end. It has a very cool vibe to it that straddles genres. It is very much a monster movie and there are some gruesome deaths, but it also has a number of fantasy elements. I think it's mostly the location and the music that give it a fantasy flavor. The keep itself is something beautifully medieval in design and the surrounding village, though the film is set in the 1940's, feels like a feudal fiefdom. The music is supplied by none other than Tangerine Dream who later also scored Ridley Scott's Legend. I guess their propensity for holding one key down on the Casio with the Synth setting turned all the way up did not go unnoticed. I really dislike Tangerine Dream, it's like elevator music from the land of Fantasia. I'm all for mysticism and to be fair the music does assist in the establishing of the mood, but the moments of silence in the fog do this equally well. The score they did for Near Dark is a lot more bearable, that's all I'm saying. The story element involving the ancient artifact that proved the monster's Achilles heel also felt very fantasy-based.
The cast of this film is outstanding. First up, we have Gabriel Byrne as the evil Nazi commander. He is a wonderfully nasty as we've come to expect and I love the way he manipulates the professor. Oh yeah, the professor is played by none other than Ian McKellen! He is phenomenal, again as you would expect, and his character arc is representative of a really interesting take on the nature of good and evil that is examined thematically throughout the film. It has a nice Faustian flavor to it, but I don't want to give too much away. The cast is rounded out with Scott Glenn whose mysterious stranger character is pretty hardcore and his character's name is impressively unpronounceable. The final battle between him and the monster gets awesomely bizarre; as does his inexplicably long sex scene.
The look and feel of the film is what really impressed me. It got progressively darker and more and more of the peripheral world slowly fell away until the keep itself seemed detached from our known dimension. I'm a big fan of fantasy or horror incorporated into a historical context and this film delivers with a nice parable about power and its ability to corrupt set against the German occupation of Europe. The use of light is really interesting; mostly darkness and shadow with striking, colorful lights used to indicate destructive energy. I also think the design on the monster is really spectacular. All in all, a terrific little film that I really hope will get a release on DVD and, dare I dream, Blu-ray.