Monday, 1 January 2018

The Keep (Michael Mann, 1983)

To the Tower... to Rasalom!

Deep in the distant Way-back When of 1981, when i was but two years old and death was but a dream, the American author F. Paul Wilson began his series of novels - variously named the Nightworld Cycle and the Adversary Cycle - chronicling the aeons-old battle betwixt vastly powerful and otherworldly creatures dubbed the Ally (an unknowable and ancient entity that collects and preserves planets and sentient life) and the Otherness (an equal and opposite malevolent force that rapaciously consumes life and revels in destruction).  So far, so Manichaean, one might think - the dualistic concept of light versus dark, order versus chaos, good versus evil has been variously represented throughout the ages by the Avestan Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the Satanail and Michael of the Bogomils as well as the Judaeo-Christian God and Satan.  Wilson's pulp horror distillation of this eternal struggle started with the novel The Keep, which introduced the earthly champions of the eternal forces: two immortal beings who battle each other upon Earth's mortal plane throughout the ages for their respective masters.  Serving the all-consuming dark of the Otherness is the ancient and evil sorcerer Rasalom, and the warrior - dubbed 'the Sentinel' - Glaeken represents the Ally.  These two mystical individuals are locked in their struggle against each other throughout the ages, one sometimes temporarily besting the other, only for their immortal and ever-living opponent to return to continue the conflict.

I spent most of my young life ignorant of such things, of course, but i was interested in scary movies - which is why one day when i was about seven years old my parents returned from the local video shop brandishing a VHS of  Michael Mann's film adaptation of Wilson's novel, and one bright afternoon in 1987 or so my nightmares for the coming months would be invaded through my eyes, from the television screen, by the dark and malevolent presence of Rasalom.

Adapted for the screen and directed by Mann - and showing early signs of the wonderful visual flair that he would go on to display in Manhunter (1986), The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Heat (1995 - although personally, i find his original telefilm version of this one, 1989's L.A. Takedown, slightly more satisfying) - and evocatively scored by Edgar Froese's electro-synth outfit Tangerine Dream (who would go on to provide a similarly mystical score for Ridley Scott's 1985 fantasy excursion Legend - at least for the US release, before it was re-scored by Jerry Goldsmith), the film opens with a long tracking shot of the clouds above a mountain pass in the Carpathians of Romania (the shot and soundtrack combinations slightly reminiscent of Werner Herzog's 1979 vampiric masterpiece Nosferatu).  Here, in the fictitious Dacian 'Dinu Pass' in 1941 (actually filmed in a North Wales slate quarry near Llanberis - had the film crew arrived here at a different point in '83 they probably wouldn't have been able to move for Cybermen), a detachment of German troops arrive to occupy the region to facilitate the Nazis' Operation Barbarossa - the attempt to invade and conquer the Soviet Union.

After occupying the small mountain village the self-proclaimed "Masters of the World", in the words of Captain Klaus Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow, making his Hollywood movie debut after the huge success of Das Boot [1981], and a an English-language role in Michael Landon-starring US TV movie Love is Forever [1983]), take charge of the large and foreboding castle keep - the eponymous edifice of the title - against the warnings of the old caretaker Alexandru (genre stalwart W. Morgan Sheppard): when told that nobody has ever stayed an entire night within the citadel Woerman asks Alexandru what drives them away -

"Dreams...", intones the elderly retainer.
"Nightmares?", scoffs the weary German soldier. "Look, man - the real nightmares man has made upon other men in this war.  The bad dreams of your keep are but a nursery rhyme in comparison."

Woermann further finds himself baffled by the castle's construction: "Why are the smaller stones on the outside and the larger stones in here?  It's constructed... backwards.  This place was not designed to keep something out."

When, on night watch, two of the German sentries discover that among the 108 metallic crosses embedded into the stone walls is silver rather than nickel, their rapacious desire for the spoils of war leads them to prize the talisman - and the masonry into which it is set - from the foundations and open up a narrow passageway into the interior of the monument (akin to the mysterious vent shafts under the pyramids, entombed with the pharaohs) that leads to a chasm into the vasty deep bowels of the earth.  This is the tomb of Rasalom, and from these mist-filled pits, dark, dank, unclear his ephemeral spectre rises to fill all before him with frost-fingered fear.

Whilst Woermann has to deal with one evil rising from inside the keep, another arrives outside, with the coming of a squadron of Einsatzkommandos (the mobile SS death squads) led by Eric Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne, Excalibur [1981], Gothic [1986], Stigmata [1999]) who begins shooting the villagers having accused them of being partisan fighters against the German army, promising that five Romanians will be shot for ever German that dies, ignoring Woermann's protests that the deaths of soldiers within the keep are not the doings of the Dacians - and Woermann begins to realise the similarity between the thing that has been unleashed from the interior and the sadistic Kaempffer, both being coldly inimical to humanity and life.

"Something else is killing us," he tells a smirking Kaempffer in response to the latter's clinical explanation of rule by fear of death, "and if it doesn't care about the lives of three villagers - if it's like you - then does your fear work?  Take that brilliant thought back to Dachau with you".  The very real horror of wartime Nazi atrocities and man's inhumanity to man is thrown into relief (no doubt backlit by the penetrating blue laser lights and slow motion photography that characterise the movie) by comparison with the completely inhuman and ancient implacable evil of the daemonic Rasalom.  The atrocities of the former are seen manifested in the concentration camp from which the Jewish scholar Dr Theodore Cuza (a pre-mutants and Middle Earth Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (the late Alberta Watson, whom i remember from the startlingly memorable Spanking the Monkey [David O. Russell, 1994]) are plucked by the increasingly desperate despoilers in an attempt to translate the mysterious runic warnings adorning the edifice.  After being touched by the hand of the ungodly reborn creature, Cuza finds his crippled and aged body rejuvenated and cured of his scleroderma.

"I don't know what it is, and i don't care," cries the rapturous professor, "He is like a hammer and can help smash them!"
"What are you talking about?" asks his frightened daughter.  "We're dealing with a golem... a devil!"
"The devil in the keep wears a black uniform and has a death's head in his cap and calls himself a Sturmbannfuhrer!" he spits, referring to Kaempffer who had 'welcomed' them after their liberation from the death camp with "the people who go to these 'resettlement camps' - there are only two doors: one in, and one out.  The one out is the chimney".  As far as Cuza is concerned, the enemy of his enemy is his ally - even if it be an unearthly entity from before the dawn of time.

Also heading like Roland to the dark tower is the mysterious Glaeken Trismegistus (Scott Glenn, Alan Shepherd in The Right Stuff [Philip Kaufman, 1983], Jack Crawford in The Silence of the Lambs [Jonathan Demme, 1991] and Stick in the Netflix Marvel series Daredevil and The Defenders [2015-2017]), who awakens in the night with bright blue eyes aglow at the moment that the dark spirit of Molasar/Rasalom begins to take on corporeal form, the psychic connection between the two adversaries reaching from the darkness of the Romanian pass to the Greek village from which Glaeken immediately departs on a voyage by sea and land to reach the appointed place for the Final Conflict (not to be confused with the third film in the Omen trilogy, which had been released two years earlier) of the enmity of ages.

"I have been here for ages," he tells Eva, "watching and guarding against what is happening now.  He is being released.  I have come to destroy him... When he goes, i go."

After Kaempffer has shot and killed Woermann and taken the silver cross that Cuza had given to the latter for protection, he finds himself face to Sphinx-like animated rock face (doctor living stone, i presume?) with the black colossus Rasalom in a mist-bound setting and shot that haunts my memory from childhood.  Answering the terrified Nazi's enquiry as to where he comes from with "I come from you", the titan of terror crushes the ineffectual relic and destroys him like a child crushing an insect.  Cuza also finds himself confronted by the creature, their Faustian pact called into question when his master's voice commands him to destroy his daughter, who is barring him from carrying out the monster's will by removing the relic that binds him to the confines of the keep.  Faced with this dilemma, his own personal binding of Isaac, Cuza turns recusant and questions the infernal fiend ("Who are you that i must prove myself by killing my child?").

Glaeken takes on the beast, of course, in a sacrificial finale made almost incomprehensible by a combination of bizarre editing and haphazard and unfinished effects (partially due to the sudden death of special effects supervisor Wally Veevers during production).  The film was beset with post-production woes, with the studio ordering Mann's original 210 minute cut hacked down to 96 minutes.  The film is in many ways the Lovecraftian horror equivalent of David Lynch's 1984 Dune - both flawed epics stymied by studio interference and editing that removes much context and badly vitiates the (un)finished product.  All that said, the movie still contains many magical (sorcerous, even) moments and a great atmosphere, helped a great deal by the Tangerine Dream soundtrack with its Olympian drums like insistent raindrops and haunting synths like swirling mist.

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