Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Keep (novel vs. film)

F. Paul Wilson is not an admirer of the film of his 1979 novel The Keep. The New Jersey author declared the film to be "visually intriguing, but otherwise utterly incomprehensible". Speaking in 2011, Wilson was still bitter about the treatment of debut novel - "The shoot went way over budget, and Paramount says “No. No more money!” Then, Michael Mann hands in a three-hour cut of the movie that needs even more funding for more effects. And again, they say “No. Cut that down to an hour and a half, and we're going to release it.” And it was on their “B-list” for publicity. There were a few trailers on TV, and that was about it. They knew it was a turkey" 1
For all it's flaws, The Keep is far from a turkey but Wilson's contempt for the film might be better understood after reading the novel. Somewhere between Paramount's botched handling of the film and Michael Mann's own screenplay, many important aspects of Wilson's novel were left on the cutting room floor or eliminated completely to the detriment of the final film. The following post is based on my recent reading of the novel and may contain spoilers so caution is advised...

At over 400 pages (at least in the current paperback edition), Wilson allows his plot and characters considerable time and space to develop, in contrast to the film which unfolds at breakneck speed.  Frequently referenced in the novel, but only hinted at in the film is the Holocaust. In the novel SS Commander Kaempffer (played in the film by Gabriel Byrne) arrives at the keep en route to oversee construction of a large Auschwitz-sized facility in Romania, built to exterminate Romanian Jews, gypsies and other so called undesirables. This may seem superfluous to the goings on within the keep, but the Final Solution plays an important role later on in the novel as we discover that Molasar, the keep's sole prisoner feeds on man's capacity for sadism and cruelty as well as the despair and suffering of peoples across war-torn Europe, making his escape from the keep at this particular juncture in time all the more desirable. Good dramatic stuff, but the film fails to capitalize on this plot detail, leaving Molasar simply a caged monster.

A high-angle shot of The Keep set, Glyn Rhonwy Quarry, North Wales

Another dramatic device which Michael Mann fails to exploit is the relationship between Kaempffer and Captain Woermann (played in the film by Jürgen Prochnow). In the novel, both know each other, having fought together in the First World War, but now are at odds since Woermann was decorated for bravery, and Kaempffer dismissed for cowardice. It's a smart backstory, both men forever locked in conflict with each other, mirroring the relationship between Molasar and Glaeken (Scott Glenn's character), but the film ignores this fact, despite Mann including a revised scene late in the film where Kaempffer shoots Woermann dead, which would have made more sense had the two men known each other. The character of Glaeken is also pared back considerably in the film, and with it the raison d'être for the existence of the keep construction. In the novel, Glaeken, an ancient ageless being is charged with destroying Molasar but fearing his life would come to an end upon completion of this task, Glaeken imprisons his nemesis within the cross encrusted walls of the keep. Interestingly, there is a brief moment in the film which alludes to Glaeken's supernatural origin when he embraces Eva and fails to cast a reflection in a mirror - a scene which sets up Mann's original unused ending for the film (based on the book) where Molasar is vanquished and Glaeken sees his reflection in a pool of water, having transformed into a normal man. (The film simply ends on a freeze frame of Eva, with the fate of Glaeken unknown)

Perhaps the most disastrous departure from the novel is the character of Molasar, in the film depicted as a 8ft creature with bulging rippling muscles and glowing crimson eyes. This is a complete contrast to his appearance in the novel where he is dressed like a 15th century nobleman. Wilson describes him during an encounter with the wheelchair-bound Dr. Theodore Cuza:
A giant of a man stood before him, at least six and a half feet tall, broad shouldered, standing proudly, defiantly, legs spread, hands on hips. A floor-length cloak, as black as his hair and eyes, was fastened about his neck with a clasp of jeweled gold. Beneath that Cuza could see a loose red blouse, possibly silk, loose black breeches that looked like jodhpurs, and high boots of rough brown leather. It was all there - power, decadence, ruthlessness.
The screenplay retains almost nothing of the fascinating backstory Wilson invented for his character. In his early scenes in the book, Molasar is initially believed to be a vampire, when the corpses of the German soldiers stationed inside the keep are found with their throats torn open and drained of blood (which prompts Kaempffer to recall seeing a pirated print of Nosferatu). Molasar claims to be a contemporary of Vlad the Impaler and helped defend Wallachia (a historical region of what is now Romania) and its people from invaders, but was forced to seek refuge in the keep when pursued by his enemies. But later it emerges that Molasar (an inversion of his actual name, Rasalom) is not the vampire of myths and legends but like Glaeken, is an ancient being who draws strength from human pain, misery, and madness, feeding on man's inhumanity to other men.

A production sketch from The Keep, depicting the annihilation of the German army

The final film jettisons a number of other interesting sequences from the novel. At one point Kaempffer is provoked to madness when he is visited by two undead soldiers, and there's one particularly memorable sequence in the book when Molasar re-animates the corpses of the slain soldiers (one of them headless) to dig for the talisman buried deep in the bowels of the keep. Later on these zombie soldiers (a nice metaphor for mindless fascist automatons) are hacked to pieces by Glaeken wielding a magical sword (in the film, the sword is swapped for a rather non-descript baton which fires beams of light). The final confrontation between Molasar and Glaeken in the novel, along the crumbling walls of the keep has been greatly simplified in the film. Apparently Mann had shot some 10mins of footage of Glaeken pursuing Molasar within the keep but this footage did not survive the final edit. Mann also filmed but discarded an epilogue of sorts to the film in which Glaeken, Eva and Cuza leave Romania by boat (a sequence not in the novel)

Despite the compromises made bringing the novel to the screen, the film of The Keep is undeserving of the contempt of author F. Paul Wilson and the indifference of Michael Mann. Wilson's novel is a finely crafted and compelling piece of horror fiction and in the absence of a director's cut of The Keep, serves as an excellent guide to what Michael Mann's film might have become had the film been given the support of the studio.

1. This F. Paul Wilson quote is taken from an interview found at The Accidental Author blog


  1. I've enjoyed reading your two entries on "The Keep." A film that equally disappoints me as much as it mesmerises with unfulfilled promises and tantalising potential. Much like Ridley's Scott's similar misjudged and choppy "Prometheus" (in my opinion), a film that shares similar frustrations for me, there is something about "The Keep" that draws me back in the hope that one day, I get to see a better version of the film. There is enough of a hint of a bigger story, a better composed narrative and spades of arresting visuals that holds my attention despite all of its blunders and style over substance.
    Like yourself, I only read the novel years after seeing the film. When reading the novel I continued to hold the film's visuals in my mind, much as I did with David Lynch's "Dune" when reading the source novel. So much so, that I was actually disappointed when Molasar (sounds like a curry - yum - Chicken Molasar anyone?) appears as described as a 15th century fop. Of course this hides the character's true intent and the 'vampire' - or not - twist was quite good. If the film is ever remade and stays true to the source material, then I would feel that the appearance of an atypical gothic prince as the central menace would feel rather underwhelming. The all its problems in the film, there are times when Molasar makes for a rather nightmarish ghostly presence. The final stage of Molasar is a nice design but unfortunately it falls into the rubber suited monster man trap. When designing the final monster, Bilal claimed that he wanted to make the shape of the skull appear like that of a German soldier's helmet, which is a nice design flourish. I also liked how the final Molasar also incorporated elements of the slate built keep into its angular muscles. I'll have to scan in the drawing and send it to you, if you do not have it already.
    I also agree that the film missed a lot of the depth that the book contained, there are some very interesting games being played by the characters in the book that would make for great drama that sadly fall flat in the film and remain rather under baked.
    F Paul Wilson also developed a graphic novel version of his novel. It might be worth tracking down this book as it would present a visual 'story boarded' version of the novel as envisaged by Wilson and would be the nearest thing to a pure visual representation of the source novel by Wilson.
    I am very much looking forward to the documentary you mentioned in your previous post. Hopefully it will see a release as it seems like rather a curio and a niche film to make. Maybe one day, we will also see a blu ray release of the actual Michael Mann film.

  2. Many thanks for the great insightful commentary Jay, it always add value to the post, much appreciated... Yep, I agree with you on all points there. I think F. Paul Wilson manages to get away with Molasar as a Vlad the Impaler style 15th century prince - it works okay in the book but could well throw the film had Michael Mann gone that route. I actually like the monster in the film, but it all seems slightly beneath Mann. But from a design point of view I think he's great. I have seen various pics of Molasar's design (all the images I posted were culled from Taschen's Michael Mann book) and the helmet motif might well figure in one of them, that's a really interesting idea. I suppose the solution to the creature's appearance is somewhere in between the book and the film. Funnily enough Jay, I did look into the graphic novel and unless Google's Images search was throwing some curve balls at me, the art for Molasar looked like it was based on the film!

    Interesting that you mentioned David Lynch's Dune because it was a film that frequently came to mind as I was putting together these posts - if The Keep is Michael Mann's bête noire, then Dune is Lynch's although I think Dune's reputation, notwithstanding The Keep lack of availability, has turned a lot faster than The Keep's. As adaptations go, Dune is more successful I think and David Lynch did a pretty damn good job of condensing some pretty complex geo-economics in Frank Herbert's novel into a two-hour space opera, and for what it's worth I see Dune fitting in quite well within the Lynch cannon (better than say...Fast Company, or The Keep).

    I think the problem of adaptation is a really interesting one - I think Michael Mann unwisely ignored a lot of good stuff from Wilson's novel, but then again so did Stanley Kubrick with Stephen King's The Shining (which I think is a terrific book), and turned in an incredible film. Then again maybe it was a good thing that Warners backed out of George Romero's 2 hour (?) film of The Stand in the early 80's...

  3. I managed to track down a copy of the graphic novel. The monster is visually depicted as a European Vlad the Impaler type character, as described in the original novel.

  4. Many thanks for confirming Jay, good to know. I'll see if I can grab a .cbr copy of it.