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Mad Movies 30
(May 1984)

From Mad Movies 30 (May 1984), pp. 37-39:

La Forteresse Noire [The Black Fortress; French name for The Keep]
by Denis Trehin
scans and original French text courtesy of Vincent Thibert of Welcome to Vincent Thibert's Main Page
translated by Paul Fellows of Welcome to the Dream Gallery, April 2000

About the film:

The photography is particularly notable due to Alex Thomson, who explained why his task was particularly awkward: "In all the interior scenes, we had to take into account the black slate which covered all the walls in the building. Also, quite a lot of the shots were wide angle shots; to place the lighting so that it wasn't in the field of vision wasn't easy. So I said to myself, with all the difficulties to overcome, the result could only be interesting."

A great deal of attention was paid to the authenticity of the costumes (as much as for the soldiers as for the Rumanian villagers), thanks to Anthony Mendleson who, in collaboration with historical advisor Andrew Mollo, studied every detail from the insignias worn by the soldiers to the period shoes via the actress Alberta Watson's clothes, whom the two men went to the lengths of getting to wear examples dating from 1938 when in fact the action happens in 1941. Being Jewish, and leading a rather chaotic life, she explains that wearing the latest fashion wasn't her main concern!

Mechanical effects were done by Nick Allder to whom we already owe, among others, 'Alien', 'The Empire Strikes Back', 'Conan' and soon 'Mandrake', and which constitutes the main attraction of the film, reason for which fans come in greater and greater numbers when they come to see a fantasy film. Nick Maley, who recently created the astonishing make-up for 'Krull', had to do so for 'The Keep', not only for Molasar, but also for Cuza in his aged condition as well as for the dummies of soldiers mummified by the creature's destructive fire. The latter was conceived with the idea that it had to represent, above all, a form taken from the ancient period from whence it came. The concept required by Michael Mann was for him to go through different phases; first, a ball of energy which bit by bit transforms itself into humanoid form. After a rudimentary first stage, a nervous system appears, then a skeleton which gradually develops muscles to finally become a vaguely humanoid creature. Also, Mann wanted the approach to be different to that of films such as 'The Thing' (Carpenter), so as not to focus too much attention on the creature who is not the main element of the film, just a way to bring out the interaction between the actors, who constitute the heart of the scenario. Molasar's transformation is constant throughout the film; while being unable to see the metamorphosis in action, we see the changes at regular intervals but bit by bit, without any major jumps from one stage to the next. The structure of the laser eyes don't change from start to finish. Finally, the close-up shots are of different animated models of heads, but when we see Molasar's feet, it's obviously an actor in a costume, able to move artificial muscles like his own, due to an intricate system of relays.

With the exploration of its strange infrastructure, the whole beginning of the film leaves us with an unsettling mood of imminent danger, and this feeling evokes (keeping all sense of proportion) certain horrific and tragic adventures leading to a monstrous discovery in forbidden places and lifted from a non-human dimension which can be found in certain novels by Lovecraft (notably 'The Call of Cthulhu'). It also conjures up images of 'Alien' by Ridley Scott, when the astronauts visit the alien vessel conceived by Giger; the same sense of alienation overwhelms us, with the latent danger lurking, as yet invisible, but soon to manifest itself. The unearthly and inhuman horror concealed in a gigantic grotto wakes from a century of sleep to annihilate the men who opened the way out.

But what we believed to be a promising start to a terrifying confrontation between human beings and a supernatural entity develops into something more subtle, from the moment when Molasar appears to be an ambiguous creature, like man in fact, whose personality he reflects; just before being destroyed, the terrified SS Kaempffer asks him from whence he came; he replies that he is a part of himself, his reflection. If he appears as a manifestation of the human subconscious, and notably the Nazi mind, the awakened demon takes on the function of a legendary character in Jewish mythology, the 'Golem', a magical being created by the incantation of magic spells, of which the cinema has given us several adaptations. It's true that 'The Keep' represents this legend in a rather round-about way, because if he (Molasar) is allied with Dr Cuza, curing his illness and leading him to believe that he will destroy Hitler, it is with the sole intention of escaping from the fortress in which lies a mysterious object, the key which holds the prisoner and which Cuza has to remove from the fortress; the living automaton, which was in the novel by Gustav Meyrinck, charged with protecting the Jews of Prague, finds an unexpected twist in Molasar who plays on the superstitious nature of Cuza to further mislead him.

We can see that 'The Keep' adopts the attractions of a fantasy tale to remind us that the Devil is in an eternal state of sleep, and in the right circumstances will always seek to return to earth and impose his reign; again, it's the eternal conflict where the freedom of man is at stake, and in a wider sense, the battle between divine and diabolic forces to assure supremacy. Michael Mann declares: "I believe there are moments in world history where collective conscience manifests itself; in the 20th century, this happened at the end of 1941. Everything promised by Hitler became reality. The German Third Reich was at its height; the war was won, continental Europe had laid down its arms. At the time, genocide could happen right under people's noses!"

So that's 'The Keep', a tale in fantasy style about a state of deep crisis, caused by the resurrection of a fantastic being such as Satan (no doubt it's him), the fallen angel who was banished to be out of harm's way and tries to regain his place among men before being sent into oblivion by an Archangel; a parable which could be seen as being rather over the top, but which fortunately is presented with enough assets to make a very good film, owing much to the atmosphere created by the decor, the special effects, the music, in fact everything which is indispensable to make an attractive and relevant fantasy work.

-- Denis Trehin.

The story:

As soon as he takes up his position with his men in an ancient Rumanian fortress, Captain Klaus Woermann (Jurgen Prochnow) of the Wehrmacht notices the fortress' curious infrastructure. It's a prison rather than a stronghold, but to hold who? The villagers don't know. That goes back to the dawn of time! In a small Green village Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn) is suddenly awakened; the moment has come. He is ready, the dark fortress has been besieged, its dangerous secret will not be kept for much longer. With a strange case as his only luggage, he sets off on a small fishing boat (in those troubled times a trip by sea was called for) for a long voyage; cross the Aegean Sea, the Marmera Sea and the Black Sea to land at Constantinople, during which he can't stop thinking about his fate: "For centuries I have lived amongst men. I envy their destiny. I would simply like to be one of them. If I manage to defeat that which I have imprisoned in the fortress, am I also going to die, or simply lose my immortality?"

Captain Woermann asks his supreme commanders to abandon their position (every night two of his soldiers are hideously mutilated under mysterious circumstances). They send him the SS as reinforcements! Their brutal officer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) slaughters innocent villagers, succeeding only in highlighting the futility of his methods. The nocturnal killings continue. The Nazis finally listen to the village priest Father Fonescu (Robert Prosky): "Ask Dr Theodore Cuza's advice (Ian McKellen). This Rumanian historian is a specialist of the middle ages. As he is Jewish, he and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) have been thrown into a POW camp in Iasi".

On the scene, Cuza and his daughter understand Fonescu's ruse. The priest might be able to organise their escape. But the next night the Doctor meets the person whom the fortress is keeping prisoner, 'Molasar', who has immense powers. After having cured him of his sclerodermia and having given him back his youthful vigour, he says "I can eliminate the Nazis but you must help me. Your task will be simple; in 2 day's time you will take an object out of this place". Cuza becomes his healer's disciple . . .

At the village hostel, Eva meets Glaeken. In his arms, she is no longer the hounded Jew or the old nurse of a father ageing before his time, but a young and sensual woman who lives her desires. This respite is to be short-lived. For all concerned. Already, everyone's behaviour is changing; all around, hate manifests itself like an evil fog; only Glaeken understands. Molasar's diabolic eminence indicates his imminent escape from the dark fortress.

Risking dying with him, Glaeken confronts Molasar (synopsis summarised in the press pack).


'The Keep' is an adaptation of the novel by F. Paul Wilson which appeared 2 years ago in 'The City Press' entitled 'The Dungeon'. Against all expectations, the film doesn't show the almost traditional vampire imagined by the author, but takes the general feel of the book and the essentials of the theme. Michael Mann, who has already given us 'Like a Free Man'* and 'The Loner'*, offers us a horror story which tells of the rebirth and reappearance of the forces of evil, and at a crucial moment in world history, right in the middle of the Second World War. The hate which pours out over a world in the grip of the madness of war, tells its story with a general concept taking the form of an entity known as 'Radu Molasar', an ancient demon held prisoner in the depths of an ancient Rumanian fortress, and who is released by the tank division of the Wehrmacht, having come to occupy that strategic position.

* These two film titles were translated directly from the French titles, they may not be the correct names of the American versions.

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Created 4/30/00. Final update of members.spree.com/molasar version on 4/30/00.
Resurrected at thekeep.0catch.com on 3/29/13.
Copyright Steven Feldman, 2000, 2013. Last updated 3/29/13.