Review by Thomas Scalzo
Posted on 07 October 2005
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Romania: World War II. A German army division arrives at a sparsely populated village, charged with guarding a strategic mountain pass. Unable to secure adequate lodgings amongst the destitute peasantry, the troops camp inside an ancient keep overlooking the thatch roofs of the town. As the men settle into their new home—stringing up wire for electric lights, constructing makeshift sleeping quarters, investigating the strange silver crosses embedded in each of the keep’s walls—they meet the eccentric caretaker of the place, and receive a dire message: no living soul has ever passed a night within the cursed walls. Leave the keep, they are told, leave immediately—and by all means, do not disturb the crosses of silver.
Ah, the unheeded warning. Where would horror be without it? A few brief words by a crazy old codger are all it takes to create an atmosphere of foreboding and assure the audience that bloody goings-on are in the offing. And when such a warning comes amidst the enticing isolation of a mountain castle, and visibly rattles a few stalwart military men, a terrifying tenor of terror is quickly established. Through explication we learn that the keep has stood untenanted for hundreds of years, and that it was seemingly constructed, not to repel an attack from without, but to contain something within. This enticing supernatural setup is enhanced by writer/director Mann’s integration of historically specific people and events—the German soldiers marching through Romania, and later, the arrival of a regiment of Nazi’s and a Jewish man returned from a concentration camp—creative choices that make the world of The Keep instantly believable, and thus all the more terrifying.
Impressively, Mann maintains a high level of quality horror for the entirety of the film’s first act, and much of the second, offered enticing glimpses as to the identity and purpose of the nameless force lurking within the keep’s cavernous depths, but never revealing too much, never allowing us to break our suspension of disbelief. From the blinding flashes of light that engulf a pair of night watchmen foolishly prying open a sealed vault, to a soldier’s horrified expression as he comes face to face with the repressed and ancient evil, each shot is framed to elicit a creeping dread that some horrible and inevitable devastation is looming just out of sight. Enhancing this mood is an eerie Tangerine Dream score, full of relentless waves of reverb and chunky electronic staccato. It is actually less music than a cacophony of disturbing sounds employed to augment the intensity of the strange scenario unfolding before us.
As the story progresses, however, the film slowly slides away from its tantalizing supernatural-horror beginnings to become a grandiose good-versus-evil fantasy saga. This is not to say that the film diminishes in quality. On the contrary, Mann’s atmospheric sensibility and confident control of his camera remain consistent throughout, as does the glorious score. But the palpable, impending-doom horror is noticeably dissipated. No longer does the director bother to cloak his demon centerpiece with obfuscating smoke and lights. Instead, we see the creature’s red, gimlet eyes and sinewy frame in some detail, and listen as the creature growls out its maddened motivations. We also meet a mysterious stranger—newly arrived in the remote mountain town—who looks upon the world with glowing green eyes and totes a mysterious, otherworldly weapon. Mann goes so far as to populate the inevitable showdown between the two supernatural titans with many slow-motion sequences and a colorful laser battle.
Astonishingly, an affecting human drama emerges to underpin this increasingly fantastic tale, as the narrow-minded Nazi commander, the leader of the regular German troops, and the aforementioned Jewish prisoner (forced to use his arcane knowledge to decipher a series of unintelligible scrawls discovered within the keep), come to loggerheads over what is actually happening in the accursed place, and what should be done about it. Themes of power, honor, and love are explored in some detail as each man struggles to understand the role he shall ultimately play in the ordeal. It is a credit to Mann’s genius (and to the respective acting talents of Gabriel Byrne, Jurgon Prochnow, and Ian McKellen) that a film incorporating such disparate material coalesces into a wholly satisfying, and ceaselessly spellbinding, viewing experience.