In the world of Michael Mann, no successful justice is wholly righteous, no bad deed is without a thrill, and whether physical, historical, social or existential, everything boils down to an act of violence. Some may argue that if you’ve seen one of Mann’s often bleak, typically brooding and always beautiful meditations, you’ve seen them all — the buffet of bokeh cinematography, the ominous electronic soundscapes and, more recently, washed-out digital cinematography that seems captured on a refurbished BlackBerry someone then dropped on the ground. But no modern director feels as attuned to crime’s contradictions, the perils of punitive pursuits and the roiling emotions running through both. And few action filmmakers so invigoratingly depict the deliberate tension and swift snap of violence. To the naysayers this month, we say … C’mon, Mann.

Here’s what I think I was thinking, circa 1983:

“I’m getting kind of tired of low-budget horror films, especially after catching that triple feature of Gates of Hell, Mausoleum, and Funeral Home at the Budco-Goldman theater in Philly. And besides, that women’s studies class I took at Temple U. and discussions with my enlightened pals about the male gaze and violence toward women in these flicks has made me a little uncomfortable with a lot of them. Maybe I’ll just abandon the genre and … wait … hold on … what’s this? The guy from Das Boot and one of those British Shakespeare guys in a WWII-set horror film directed by the guy who made Thief?” 

And so I took advance of a sneak preview (one of the perks of writing arts reviews for my college paper) and trekked down to Chestnut St. for what I hoped would be something different than the usual scare fare. 

I was both right and wrong about this allegory / gory story. What I remember most was darkness, boredom and an awful ending.

Watching Michael Mann’s The Keep nearly 38 years later, I’m struck mostly by its all-over-the-placeness. There’s a choppiness that feels like the location shoot was cut short, the special effects rushed and the editor, Dov Hoenig (later to work with Mann on Heat, The Last of the Mohicans and more) was tasked with turning it into something on a very tight deadline. The excessive use of slow motion may be rationalized as creating a dream-like effect but really just makes it seem like limited footage is being stretched.

I have no evidence that any of this was the case. But that’s how it feels. Apparently, Paramount chopped the film down considerably and Mann doesn’t talk a whole lot about it. IMDb says Tony Palmer did uncredited editing on the film. 

Let’s back up.

The Keep is based on the first novel by F. Paul Wilson. I haven’t read it or the five other books that would later be labeled “The Adversary Cycle.” In the film, Jürgen Prochnow plays a German soldier put in charge of the title fortress. He hasn’t bought into the whole Nazi thing but, well, we don’t know much about him except that he’s better than most of his peers. When his men start dying, he’s ready to relocate but is instead one-upped by a sadistic superior (Gabriel Byrne) who arrives and quickly orders the killing of some villagers because maybe that would spark some people to turn in the killer. 

We know early on that it isn’t the villagers who are responsible. A more likely suspect is whatever the hell was unleashed when a few greedy soldiers attempted to pry a silver cross out of the wall, revealed an opening and got their heads exploded. The moment just before they lose their noggins turns out to be the best shot in the movie — a slow pull back to reveal a vast darkness creepier than anything we eventually see.

Side note: Can we please track down who was responsible for the mistaken belief that Tangerine Dream was anything but an annoying distraction in horror and fantasy films of the 1980s? (See also Firestarter and Legend.)

A few more characters arrive on the scene. Bad German Byrne is tricked into bringing in an outside expert (Ian McKellen) to try to sort things out. Potentially interesting detail: The expert is Jewish and in a concentration camp. He’s also got his daughter (Alberta Watson) in tow who does little except have sex with the mysterious guy with the glowing eyes (a stoic Scott Glenn) who trekked here because, well, he supernaturally knew something was up. 

If nothing else, The Keep at least sounds original, until you notice the boxes being checked. Mysterious building with a past? Yep, we’ve seen that and bought the house in Amityville. Long-trapped force released by the unsuspecting? That cliche has long-since been mummified by Hollywood. Crosses to hold off baddies? Hello, Drac and company. Exploding heads? Scanners beat you to it. Creature less interesting once seen? Nearly every monster movie of the period. Laser sword battle climax? You know

At least there’s Prochnow, who went on to Dune and The Seventh Sign and deserved better, and that one really cool shot … which remains a really cool shot.