Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception... until the screen is a white glaring rectangle (with fuzzy corners)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Terminator Looking Glass: THE KEEP (1983), DARK ANGEL (1990) and Planet Arous

(1983) Dir. Michael Mann

Director Michael Mann's so busy with capturing the way backlit German soldiers cast weird light and shadow as they slow-motion run through the fog to the sound of a haunting two chord synthesizer that any semblance of story in his only non-crime opus, The Keep, sinks deep beneath the ocean of consciousness. Not that the ocean of consciousness ain't badass and, even as a The Terminator-meets-WW2 style outline coheres, hypnotic with mystic mojo. Fresh from playing a sympathetic U-Boat captain in Das Boot, Jürgen Prochnow is sufficiently war weary as the Wermacht officer assigned to a remote Romanian fortress, butting heads with hardline SS guy Gabriel Byrne, who easily forgets the Romanians are actually Germany's allies and not just more Soviet peasants to crush underfoot, especially when soldiers start disappearing. It seems their new outpost was built into the side of the Carpathian Mountains thousands of years before recorded time and --while the colorful Romanian villagers bring the food and sweep up the corridors and wear crosses for der mutter's sake by day--they never visit after dark, and advise the soldiers not to sleep there. Since the Keep's been there longer than their remembered time, they don't even know why they're so squirrelly about it. But Jürgen has his orders!

The first night a couple of sentries decide to dig the silver cross out of one of the walls, and what happens next will blow your mind, Mann hopes, so that you don't notice how most of the rest of the film is blown as well... Blown... like dust in the slow motion wind, sparkling like diamonds in cross-shaped rays of ambient light, illuminating mysterious spaces vaster than the ocean within the stone blocks of the walls...

In sum, backwards fog machines have been absorbing German souls for use incarnating a dark grey giant with glowing red eyes and a body that slowly beefs up from accumulated evil soul steroids. Prochnow doesn't see the thing himself but does notice his men are vanishing, and he sure hears Byrne busting his balls about it. Bottles are opened, drunk in existential despair, bloody graffiti in an ancient vaguely semitic language turns up on a wall. This prompts the Nazis to send for an old Jewish archaeologist-linguist named Dr. Cuza (Ian McKellen), currently cooling his wheelchair in a nearby concentration camp with his hot daughter (Alberta Watson). He brings her, leading to attempted rape by German guards who are promptly absorbed into our monster via a lengthy shot of backwards fog. Is this the fabled Jewish golem, or the original Dracula or have they always been one and the same? Whomever he is, this burly being comes to Dr. Cuza to offer vengeance against the Reich in exchange for a small favor that will enable him to escape the Keep. As an advance, the being infuses Dr. Cuza with youth and he can suddenly walk and looks as young and spry as Ian McKellen was at the time, relatively speaking.

As this weird creature is so muscular he begins to resemble Arnold's Terminator if he was made out of the rock from a Metropolis furnace. Meanwhile, the Hebrew Sex God equivalent of Kyle Reese (Scott Glenn) senses a disturbance in the force and charters a slow boat at dawn up the Elbe at sunrise, scored to hypnotic synths as the sky streaks red, letting you know all you need to about Mann's future Miami Vice series.

Like so many shots in the film there's really no point to this drawn-out dawn-on-the-Elbe boat shot (besides future placement on Mann's reel). Sorry if that sounds snide of me to say. If I wasn't stuck seeing the film on a crappy full-frame crop on the web. I might have just swooned away as I did watching Mann's Miami Vice feature film on Blu-ray. The man loves him some sunset/sunrise skies reflected on bodies of flowing water.

Anyway, Scott Glenn's been making sure this being stays in the Keep, for centuries, and even if it means Hitler won't be devoured in a dust storm Glen's got to stop him from leaving.  Maybe he can shag McKellan's daughter in the process, for he is no sourpuss Christian god.

The last time I tried to see this all the way through was in high school when my buddy Alan rented it and his girlfriend (and mine) came over and we played hooky and hung out all day having sex in different rooms, which made the film even harder to understand through my dozing brain. It's almost too slow even now, on lots of SSRI meds, but Michael Mann's career is such that we can now admire it as a fledgling auteur's first attempt at transformation, even if its ultimate hook--that all morally-compromised men and women are done in by their own unconscious manifestations of their darkest fears and desires in the rarefied realms of the foggy backlit stony corridors--has been done to death and back again (if you substitute the Keep for a mysterious planet or spacecraft you have Galaxy of Terror, Sphere, Event Horizon, Solaris, and even to a certain extent Forbidden Planet). But unlike some of those films, which get way too solemn, Keep still has the mighty monster, a tall giant gray Joe Kubrick-esque juicehead with coal red eyes and charcoal shoulder muscles that make the average linebacker look like Ichabod Crane and a ruthlessness towards fascism that even fascism itself might think extreme. 

Maybe if it was a shade less opaque or Mann used less slow motion it would be a classic, but still, it's worth any price to see Ian McKellan, who is now as old as the character he plays at the start of The Keep, suddenly cast off his current age and be young again. Imagine if that were true and we were guaranteed another 30 years of him! Now that we so belatedly know and love him, we would not waste un minuto del McKellan

Another benefit this film has going is its accurate portrayal of some complicated interrelation between the German army, the SS, and their Romanian allies. WWII historians watching this with their less-sophisto peers can use the events of the film to pompously explain the friction between the relatively sane Wermacht and the conclave of sociopaths in the SS, and why the Romanians signed on with the Axis (to help them fight off the Soviets) which makes an interesting corollary to the deal between this golem monster and McKellen's linguist. 

I'm a big WWII and horror fan and used to read a ton of comic books and this film reminded me of one of my pet imagination projects, an adaptation of DC Comics' Weird War Tales. The Keep would make a damn good middle entry in a horror-war trilogy. Its story could cut down to 30 minutes with ease. I think that's how long it would be anyway if Mann just sped it back up to normal speed. Either way it's weird enough (and played straight enough) to just about sneak by coherency's dozing sentry. And it's good enough to make me hope some day we'll get a Blu-ray HD restoration and be able to fathom what what was holding Mann's attention so glacially.  


AKA "I COME IN PEACE" (1990) Starring Dolph Lundgren

Speaking of thick necks, what about Dolph Lundgren? A Swede with nary a trace of accent, he plays a tall anti-authoritarian cop in Dark Angel, AKA I Come in Peace. There are some cliche lines, a cliche lady cop girlfriend who is angry at him for not calling, and a cliche uptight yuppie partner, but the killer is a total original: a Germanic Alec Baldwin-meets-Christopher Lambert type with Wuxia hair, shoulder pads, and serious Lugosi-at-the-end-of-Bride of the Monster platforms. On Earth to harvest our opiate-spike pituitary chemicals (they fetch a high price back on his home planet), he kills a mess of drug dealers with a flying CD, then uses their supply to shoot up random civilians via his crazy wrist snake device, and THEN then drills a hole in their forehead to harvest the ensuing mix of dopamine gushes, then accumulates it all in little crystalline vials in a wrist pack for future off-world export. Man, that's about as un-cliche deviation from the standard alien drug dealer as you can ask for.

It wouldn't be a post-Terminator film if there wasn't also a cop alien, lagging behind and always a little confused, coming after the drug dealer with all sorts of sci-fi fire power smashing up downtown LA. There's also a conglomerate of great evil yuppies that get shot to pieces in a satisfying side plot (always a comfort in these harsh economic times), and the end is a long cool chase through an abandoned smelting plant, or something, ala the end of Terminator 2, and just about everything is thrown into an all-out brawl that's pure Dolph!

I didn't know much about old Dolph prior to writing this, but was shocked to learn he's a Fulbright scholar and brilliant engineering student, a former Swedish Olympic karate team leader, still married to the mother of his children and looks like a damned cool dad. Check him in this picture below teaching one of his daughters some karate moves while on a family vacation!

It would have been great if he'd been allowed to act the full breadth of his Swedish ubermensch intelligence in more films, as anyone can play a dumb cop with a gut instinct for crime who refuses to play by the book, especially by 1990, the pinnacle of lame catchphrase buddy cop action comedy saturation. The drive-in era was dying by then, and where was a film about a 'think from the gut' cop--the type who finds out anything he wants to know by going to a seedy strip club and shaking down the perennial sniveling snitch, Michael J. Pollard--going to go? It had to wait until now, on the Shout disc, bathed in the neon hue of 80s nostalgia, to shine crazy diamond-style.

All that aside, if you're willing to bask in this 80s capstone's sheer muttonheadedness then you can appreciate the weird aspect of the alien drug peddler avoiding junkies (since their glands are often burned out) and saying "I come in peace" before launching his dope attacks. The film works best when trying to not be clever -- the action is easy to follow and the only distraction is how the editor prides himself on a million little clever smash cuts, from someone opening a car door to someone opening a bottle, for example; there's also the issue of the shrill yuppie smug FBI partner to get past, and the way the roundhouse kicks are filmed is such that one instantly looks for stunt doubles, which makes no sense. If your lead can do his own martial arts it pays to live in the wide shot.

But hey, it was the end of the 80s, the final entry in a long line of Terminator-aping films about heavies from another time, planet, or dimension pursued by an agent of good from the same dimension (ala everything from The Hidden to Trancers and The Keep all the way back to The Brain from Planet Arous (1957). Now that's a film you should see, oh alien brain word receiver. It's cheaper than a Jack Benny doorman tip, but John Agar, in dark contact lenses, ranting about world domination whilst under the possession of evil brain Gor? That's something even a Fulbright can get behind.

1 comment:

  1. The theatrical cut of the keep is an abridged version of a longer cut. Paramount re-edited the film prior to release.


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