Thursday, September 19, 2013

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

(1983) Dir. Michael Mann

Director Michael Mann is 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 said ocean of consciousness ain't worth seeing (and hearing, via a droning hypnotic Tangerine Dream score), even though the pre-Terminator-meets-WW2 style outline coheres a little too patly, despite all the mystic portent. Fresh from playing a sympathetic U-Boat captain in Das Boot, J├╝rgen Prochnow once again proves he's very good at doing a war weary (i.e. sympathetic) German officer who'd rather be home mit die frau un kindern than blowing up convoys or killing Russians. This time he plays a Wermacht officer whose platoon is assigned to a remote and very old stone fortress/cave on the Carpathian mountain-border between Romania and Russia. He finds himself, for reasons forgettable, butting heads with hardline SS guy Gabriel Byrne, who easily forgets the Romanians are actually Germany's allies and not just more peasants to crush underfoot, especially when their staff start disappearing. It seems their new outpost was built thousands of years before recorded time (it's 'always been there') 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. Their warnings go unheeded!

The first night a couple of sentries decide to dig the silver cross out of one of the walls (a big no-no, according to the peasants), and what happens next will blow your mind, Mann hopes, so that you don't notice how most of the rest of the film--too--is blown...
... Blown... like dust in the slow motion wind,
sparkling like diamonds in cross-shaped rays of ambient light,
illuminating dark empty spaces vaster than the ocean within the stone blocks of the walls...
there is no bottom.

As you no doubt guessed, backwards blowing slow-mo fog machines have been absorbing German souls, using their dark energy for incarnating a 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 Byrne, overacting mightily, never ceases busting his balls about it. Bottles are opened and drunk in existential despair. Then, a break: bloody graffiti in an ancient vaguely semitic language turns up on a wall. Only 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) can decode it. They brings the pair to the Keep, which leads to attempted rape by German guards who are promptly absorbed into our monster via a lengthy shot of more backwards-flowing fog machine fog while Tangerine Dream howls in the bones of your face. Is this the fabled Jewish golem, or the original Dracula or have they always been one and the same? Soon Dr. Cuza is being re-endowed with youth; he can suddenly walk and looks as young and spry as Ian McKellen was at the time, relatively speaking. What a country.

Meanwhile, the Hebrew Sex God equivalent of Kyle Reese (Scott Glenn) senses a disturbance in the force and charters a slow boat. Scored to hypnotic synths as the sky above the flowing waters of the Elbe streaks red with the dawn, this long, extraneous sequence lets you know all you need to about Mann's future Miami Vice series. Mann is a man who likes shots of boats zipping up rivers under red skies while excellent hypnotic electronic music plays. He'll figure out how to shoehorn it all into a story later, for now, make with the boats!

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. As long as the image is HD, restored, and anamorphic, hey- so do I.

Anyway, the being wants out, and promises to wipe out Hitler in the name of the Jews if Ian helps free him. 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 his no sourpuss Christian god. Man I love Jewish women!

The last time I tried to see this all the way through was in high school when my buddy Alan rented it when it first came out - he and his girlfriend (and mine) came over and we played hooky and hung out all day fooling around while my mom was out, barely paying attention. We all judged the film as terrible kind of sight unseen, just because it was so dark on the old VHS, and slow. Well, now we can see it but even so, it's still too slow --even on lots of SSRI meds. Michael Mann's career is, however, impressive enough, 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--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 and 'respectable', for all its pomp and fog, Keep still has the mighty monster, a tall giant gray Joe Kubrick-esque juicehead with coal red eyes and charcoal shoulder muscles, and a ruthlessness towards fascism that even fascism itself might think extreme. 

Maybe if it was a shade less opaque, or Mann leaned just little less on slow motion, it would be a classic. Even flawed as it is, 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 magnificent sexy performances from 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.

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 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 it was about this imagery that was holding Mann's attention so glacially... aside from that boat.


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

Speaking of muscleheads, what about Dolph Lundgren? A Swede with nary a trace of accent, he plays a tall anti-authoritarian cop, so cliche'd in his nonconformity--cliche lines, a cliche lady cop girlfriend (angry at him), and a cliche uptight yuppie partner to annoy--he makes conformity seem like cool, in Dark Angel, AKA I Come in Peace.  Luckily, 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 platform shoes. On Earth to harvest our opiate-spike brain chemicals (they fetch a high price back on his home planet), he kills a mess of drug dealers with a flying CD, steals their stash, then uses it 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 with which to turn LA. "into a war zone!" There's also a conglomerate of great evil yuppies that get shot to pieces in a satisfying side plot (always a comfort) and the end is a long cool chase through an abandoned smelting plant 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. Alas, 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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