In 1981, F. Paul Wilson released the first of his six-novel “Adversary Cycle,” entitled The Keep. It was an instant classic of horror fiction, playing on the theme of evil vs. evil by pitting Nazi soldiers against an even greater menace. In doing so, he successfully updated H.P. Lovecraft’s ancient gods into a World War II setting.
The basic tale finds a German platoon setting up camp in a mysterious castle within Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. Before long they are being killed off one by one, at the hands of an unseen interloper. Desperate to save his men, Wermarcht Captain Klaus Woermann sends out a request for relocation — but his command is overthrown instead by psychopathic SS Sturmbannfuhrer Eric Kaempffer, who reluctantly enlists the aid of Jewish history professor Theodor Cuza for answers.
The entity responsible for the murders is discovered to be Molasar — an ancient sorcerer from the “First Age” of humans. His nemesis Glaeken, builder of the Keep and champion of the forces of light, discovers what is going on and arrives to join the conflict to contain Molasar before he can escape its walls and bring about an age of ultimate darkness.
In 1983 Michael Mann (MIAMI VICE) directed a big-budget film adaptation for Paramount Pictures, which was tragically both a critical and box office disaster. What exactly went wrong during the book’s transition to the big screen? Lots of things, it turns out.
There are many tales worth your time about the making of THE KEEP, but I thought it would be best to ask F. Paul Wilson himself to provide us with some of the most egregious changes between the book and the movie, and director Michael Mann’s approach to the story.
He responded with the following examples:
- The story is set in the month of April 1941, but the film talks about the German army being outside Moscow… which wasn’t until October of that year, which for some reason pushed the story six months ahead.
- There’s is no run-up of mysterious deaths in the Keep before Kaempffer’s arrival with the Einsatzkommando unit.
- Mann says, “I stripped the plot of all its Gothic elements, leaving only ideas. I mean the vampires are out immediately. It’s all nonsense and it has all been seen before.” Wilson counters this assertion by saying there was never an actual vampire in the novel: “That was just a red herring,” he says. “If you toss out the vampire references, why keep it in Transylvania? He could have put the film in France or even Germany.”
- In the film, the words written in blood on the wall translate as “I will be free.” In the book, they translate “Strangers leave my home.” According to Wilson, that’s part of Molasar’s seduction of Dr. Cuza, which is given short shrift in the film.
- According to Wilson, a recurring problem in the film is that Mann “doesn’t work on Cuza’s crisis of faith which, in the book, is one of the linchpins in Molasar’s destruction of his character. Molasar targeted that from the very beginning.”
- Dr. Cuza is a believing Jew in the novel, but Mann turns him into an atheist or agnostic, who’s dismissive of faith and God. This version of Cuza comes around to being Molasar’s tool far too easily.
- Mann’s choice to depict Captain Woermann as anti-fascist is, by Wilson’s thinking, “total crazy bullshit… You simply don’t have Wehrmacht Captains as Marxists; they don’t make the rank. Mann has him talking about fighting in Spain on the Socialist side. Woermann was a loyal professional soldier, a patriot, a guy who loved Germany but did not love the Nazis… and he was fighting for German pride, which a lot of the soldiers were doing. Not for Hitler. All those crushing burdens from Versailles made a lot of these people want revenge on the rest of Europe.”
- In the novel, Molasar appears human. But Mann depicts him as a formless cloud of smoke with glowing eyes and a glowing brain, which later morphs into a hulking golem that sounds, according to Wilson, “like Darth Vader with bronchitis.”
- In the book, Glaeken battles Molasar with an ancient sword; in the film, the weapon becomes what Wilson describes as “a cosmic raygun.”
The film has since grown in stature as something of a cult classic — partly due to an awesome score by German electronic-music pioneers Tangerine Dream, but also because of its admittedly spectacular visuals. The passion of THE KEEP’s cinematic fans is best reflected in this quote from Chris Alexander, former Editor-in-Chief of Fangoria and now of ShockTillYouDrop:
It is a film of many sensory pleasures, and the key to truly enjoying it is to overlook its flaws, its lapses in logic and its often dated visual effects, and let it simply wash over you, to sink into it and perceive it like an opium-inflicted hallucination.
I say read the book instead, and enjoy the fruits of a master storyteller.