Little film gems which escaped wide attention and perhaps yours too.
by greg moss
Under The Radar is a semi-regular post in which I bring to light little-seen films, which got lost in the crowd due to lousy distribution or were misunderstood at the time of their release, but which deserve to be seen for one reason or another.
First up this week …
THE KEEP (1983)
Directed by Michael Mann (Thief, Manhunter, Heat). Screenplay by Mann, based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson. It stars Jurgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Gabriel Byrne and Sir Ian McKellen.
A German army garrison, occupying a medieval Romanian fortress during World War II, find themselves picked off one by one by a terrifying force of evil. It is up to a mysterious ethereal stranger to bannish this ancient evil and spare humanity from unspeakable horrors.
Why it’s worth seeing:
Mann’s second feature (after his 1981 James Caan-starring heist thriller Thief), The Keep is a film which appears oddly out of place in the director’s oeuvre and one which Mann himself has seemingly ‘swept under the carpet’. It remains his only feature still to receive an official release on dvd (let alone blu-ray).
And yet, ironically, this has possibly worked in its favour, as it has gained somewhat of a cult following over the years.
As with all of Mann’s features, The Keep is visually sumptuous, with atmospheric lensing by Alex Thomson and surreal production design by John Box (Sorcerer) it evokes memories of Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, in terms of creating a haunting dream-like ambience, which stays with you long after it has ended.
It was Mann’s intent to create ‘a fable for adults’ – one which broached the subject of absolute evil in the context of what was happening in Germany in the early years of World War II. In this way, he pretty much abandoned the novel’s Gothic tropes and opted instead to explore – for want of a better term – ‘the inherent potential of evil in men’.
In this respect, the film is a triumph – as it does indeed delineate the difference between the ordinary regular German soldier (Prochnow’s empathetic Woermann) and the psychopathic black-shirt Nazi Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne).
Having never studied German history in high school – I was never aware there was a difference or that there were indeed elements within the regular German army who harboured feelings of dissent against Hitler’s regime.
So, in my mind at least, Mann achieved his intent.
And he really should be applauded for this.
Yeah – but is it scary?
Well … not particularly.
But there ARE moments which quicken the pulse – particularly the pivotal scene where the evil is released – a beautifully orchestrasted sequence made all the more effective by the use of music by Tangerine Dream.
But then, The Keep isn’t meant to be a horror-fest – as in the novel.
It’s more like a bad dream – as opposed to an all-out horror.
It is undeniably unsettling, and yet there are moments of sublime visual poetry – as in the scene where Molasar (the entity, not yet fully-formed) rescues Alberta Watson from a couple of Nazi soldiers intending to have their way with her. The seamless integration of music and visual effects (Molasar is portrayed as an imploding collumn of smoke with glowing eyes) creates a mesmerizing sequence of startling beauty.
As far as the actors go, Jurgen Prochnow gives it his all – a standout performance.
He outshines the rest of the cast.
Summing up –
It’s a real shame Mann seems to have abandoned The Keep, as it seemed, at the time, to have been a highly personal project. Which is perhaps why he has indeed left it buried in obscurity.
Well worth a look though, if you can find it.
Next up …
THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI: ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION (1984)
Debut feature directed by W.D. Richter (screenwriter – Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers 1978, Dracula 1979, Big Trouble In Little China). Written by Earl Mac Rauch. It stars Peter Weller, Ellen Barkin, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Lloyd and Clancy Brown.
Just how do you describe this crazy movie in just a few lines?
Um … okay … how ‘bout this –
Scientist, brain surgeon, test pilot, inventor, rock star and all-round amazing dude, Buckaroo Banzai, must recover a stolen invention of his own design in order to stop a band of renegade alien beings from the 8th dimension (all named John) in returning home and overthrowing their own planet.
Why it’s worth seeing:
So what the hell exactly IS this film?
Well, essentially, it’s a comedy with science fiction overtones – played absolutely straight.
As Richter stated at the time of the film’s release, his aim was to drop the audience into a completely realised world, without providing any explanation or backstory to events as they unfold. Don’t get me wrong – there IS logic to everything which transpires, however, it is up to the viewer to pay close attention to every moment and every throwaway line of dialogue (which isn’t difficult, as virtually every line is a quoteable gem in itself).
It was precisely this ‘outside the square’ concept which bamboozled the distributor’s marketing department – they had no idea how to effectively promote the film.
The result being –
It never found an audience.
I remember seeing it in a small theatre, with only one other person present!
Buckaroo Banzai is yet another example of a film which was misunderstood at the time of its release, but which was essentailly ahead of its time and is only in recent years (thanks to dvd) being appreciated for the entertainingly clever hoot it is.
Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes right-brained people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies.