In hindsight, knowing the kind of film that Michael Mann "ought" to make, The Keep seems like an inexplicably bizarre tangent for the future director of Heat and Collateral, wedged into his filmography like a square peg in a round hole to a degree that The Last of the Mohicans dares not even dream about. Ay, but that's hindsight for you. In 1983, Mann had only written or directed a TV movie about a man in prison, a theatrical feature about a career criminal, and a few episodes of some cop shows. So actually, even in 1983 it didn't make a whole lot of sense for him to jump with both feet into a supernatural tale of an ancient evil killing Nazis in Transylvania. Whatever, he didn't have a brand name to protect yet, and it's not really hard to see the appeal of adapting a story about Nazis fighting ancient evil in a centuries-old stone fortress. I have heard it said that F. Paul Wilson's novel is a bit of a cheat and not nearly as smart as it wants to be, but hey, these are the things that a bright filmmaker can fix, and coming off of Thief, Mann had clearly proven himself to be a bright filmmaker.

I cannot explain, even by trotting out the old "sophomore slump" idea, how the final product therefore ended up being such a complete boondoggle. There's no reason to think that Mann was just doing this project for the paycheck - he hadn't done so with Thief, and like always he wrote his own screenplay, which suggests a certain level of attachment to the work - but damned if I can see much in The Keep that looks like a gifted filmmaker who has any particular idea what he's doing with a project. There are some shots that could only be birthed out of great inspiration, and the look of the whole project is a beautiful thing, thanks to the fine cinematographer Alex Thomson and the extremely gifted production designer John Box, a man who worked on three of David Lean's big epic films. And that's another thing that hindsight tells us: if Michael Mann must choose between a perfectly straightforward story or a film with all sorts of gorgeous visuals, he'll tend to favor the latter. But never ever have I seen another Mann film where the story is quite as much of a colossal botch as we find in The Keep. After a brilliant opening act, the plot gets flabbier and flabbier until around the half-way point, when it stops making any sense whatsoever. And that's not the only one of the film's sins, though it is probably the greatest.

It's 1941, and the Nazis have set up shop in a small Romanian village in the Carpathian Mountains, there to defend a strategically valuable pass. From a military standpoint, the best thing about this village is the presence of an ancient keep right at the foot of the pass, a natural place if ever there was one for the Germans to establish their operation. Silly Germans, if things were that easy, there wouldn't be a movie for us to watch! Sure enough, it doesn't take Captain Woermann (Jürgen Prochnow, in those long-ago days when he was yet the great German actor from Das Boot and not the nutcase whore who was in both Wing Commander and House of the Dead) more than a few minutes to realise that the keep doesn't really function as a defensive stronghold at all; in fact, to all appearances, it was built to keep something inside, not to keep attackers out. And his suspicions are only heightened by the keep's cryptic old caretaker (W. Morgan Sheppard, from before he started using the "W") and his hints about something Mysterious and Terrible that happens to people who stay in the keep at night, and other things straight out of the Tight-Lipped Vampire Movie Innkeeper Handbook.

That said, nothing really bad happens until a soldier named Lutz (John Vine) decides to act upon the rumor circulating among the Nazi grunts that the dozens of metallic crosses mounted into the inner walls of the keep are made of silver, and that they're only the very tip of the mound of treasure to be found inside. He ropes another guard into helping him do a little excavating at night (presumably the first night the Germans are there, but regular chronology isn't the film's strong suit; see below), and they open a hole into a vast chamber - really, incredibly, amazingly vast - where something glowy and gaseous severs Lutz in half and blows up his comrade's head.

As dead Nazis pile up for the next couple of days, Woermann is given an unpleasant surprise when SS Sturmbannführer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne) shows up, sent by the higher-ups to solver whatever problems are going on in the little town, and being SS, his solution involves threatening to kill villagers by the handful. But even he has to good sense to know when something queer is going on, and when strange writing appears on the keep walls that nobody can translate, the local priest (Robert Prosky) suggests that only one old Jewish scholar, currently rotting in a concentration camp, can decode the writing, and the Germans have no choice but to bring him up. And thus do Dr. Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen) and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) join in the fun, and our cast is essentially complete, except for the mysterious unnamed fella with piercing blue-violet eyes, played by Scott Glenn, who is plainly not human, although what he is requires waiting for the end of the movie, and then saying, "wait, I still don't know what was going on with the blue-eyed guy!"

What's good, and some of its very good indeed, is how Mann and his crew create the swellest sense of mysterious atmosphere you could hope to see. The keep and the village are patently sets, but their very artifice adds to the nightmare quality of the visuals, especially given the vats of fog that the filmmakers dump on top of everything. It feels exactly like the Mittel-European towns populating the Universal monster pictures of the '30, with just the same feeling of theme park spookiness that marks the best of them. And it's shot tremendously well; save for the deeply unfortunate climax, which like so many '80s horror and sci-fi films is one of those light-show battles that looks like a hair-metal video with far too many laser effects. Um, yes, save for that, the lighting is moody and sensitive, and pleasingly inclined to darkness that is carefully sculpted, rather than just being underlit. Adding even more to the mood, Tangerine Dream composed their second score in a row (and, alas, their last) for a Michael Mann film, and if anything the music in The Keep is even better than it was in Thief - even more otherworldly and soaring, in a film that can support those things far better than Thief could.

Mann had some very good moments here as a director, too, though not nearly as many as in his better films, and they're all better than The Keep. His customary use of shots that feel a tiny touch closer than you'd necessarily like works exceptionally well in the claustrophobic hallways of the keep, his tracking shots capture the dimensions of the space exceedingly well, and there's one amazing process shot that appears to crane back hundreds of yards through mid-air, the kind of stupidly ambitious effect that makes us love visual stylists just for being stylish.

And yet, there's Mann's script, and his pacing, although I don't know who to blame for that - especially in its last 30 minutes, The Keep has the definite tang of a film that was chopped to ribbons by the studio. But whoever did it, the story in this film is a colossal mess: early on, days and days are compressed into a single line of dialogue, making the transition from scene to scene sometimes impossible to follow. Worse still, from the instant that Eva and the blue-eyed stranger fall into bed apparently seconds after meeting (at roughly the 55 minute mark in a 96 minute film), we bid farewell to anything resembling coherent character behavior, and by the time of the absolutely useless final scenes, the best we can do is make an educated guess about who the two people are that are fighting each other, what their motivations are, or where they came from. Certainly, the perfunctory way that we learn their names suggests in the strongest way that there was a scene explaining all that left somewhere on the cutting room floor. (Additionally, the fact that Scott Glenn gets first billing despite having nowhere near the largest role indicates that there might be a lot of Glenn footage lost to time). Mann is a director who favors action over exposition, admittedly, but he's also not really a director who tends to dismiss narrative outright; not even the hugely sloppy Miami Vice is quite as much a shambles as this.

Before I bid farewell to this confusing wreck, a word on the cast. That word is "horrendous." Special mention must certainly go to McKellen, a fine actor if ever a fine actor lived and breathed, here giving his worst performance ever, or at least I desperately hope it is. Playing an old man who is de-aged, McKellen convinces at neither, and in the not-infrequent moments when he is called upon to bray something in that McKelleny way, it plays like the worst kind of ham acting, the very polar opposite of his declarations in The Lord of the Rings or X-Men films. The rest of the cast doesn't do much, not that they have much to do: Glenn and Watson seem locked in a duel to see who can give the most stilted reading of their love dialogue, while Byrne goes into full-on cartoon Nazi mode and only Prochnow of the entire ensemble is even slightly interested in suggesting that there's any human core to his character, and thus his perfectly serviceable performance is hugely out of place with the rest of the film, and seems as bad as anything in it.

And so farewell to Michael Mann's worst picture, hardly a Mann film at all; it's only connection to his customary preoccupation with the morality of masculinity is Woermann's unlikely tendency to talk smack about Fascism. It is interesting to look at, but not altogether in the way that Mann's films are customarily interesting to look at (it's more about the production design, less about the lighting, and only rarely about the camera movements). But the look is just about the only thing that it has going for it at all. In all other ways, this is an outright failure.