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The Keeper
(1976)

Director: T. Y. Drake
Cast:
Christopher Lee, Tell Schreiber, Sally Drake


There is definitely a lot of entertainment to be found with actors in the motion picture industry. The most obvious avenue of entertainment is watching them perform in front of the camera. However, when they are not acting, their career planning between movies can be extremely interesting. Public appearances are one such thing, but it's also intriguing to see how certain actors in the motion picture industry decide to stick in a "comfort zone" of sorts. This can include playing the same basic character movie after movie, such as how Steven Seagal plays a nearly indestructible guy in black who beats up every opponent within a few seconds. It can also include staying in the same basic genre, like how Randolph Scott decided to stick with appearing in westerns. The question comes up as to why some famous actors decide in the first place to stay with the tried and true. I think there are several reasons for this. First, many actors find that sticking with the familiar can be their bread and butter, being a reliable paycheck. Why try something new that could possibly fail, and make the paychecks from subsequent movies to be a lot less lavish? Related to this is the fact that many stars understand that their fans want to see their favorite actor or actress stick to something that makes the fans happy again and again. There are other reasons as well. There are some actors who have a limited range with what they can do in front of the camera - bringing up Steven Seagal again, his style of acting might be appropriate for roles where his character is snapping people's spines. However, you can tell from his performances in all these action movies that he would be absolutely terrible at trying comedy or romance.

Of course, there are potential problems that can come up when a film actor or actress keeps doing the same thing over and over. There's typecasting that can eventually form, which may prevent the actor or actress from playing another type of character or appearing in a much different kind of movie. However, when the actor or actress in question is offered to do something different, the results are often very interesting. For example, when the 1952 slapstick comedy movie Abbott And Costello Meet Captain Kidd was in pre-production, someone in the production got the idea to ask Charles Laughton to play Captain Kidd. Up to that point, Laughton was known for playing gruff and serious roles in serious films like Mutiny On The Bounty. To many people's surprise, Laughton immediately leaped up to accept the offer - he had long had a desire for once to play a silly role in a silly comedy. However, several decades later when Billy Crystal offered tough guy actor Charles Bronson (Chino) the part of Curly in the comedy City Slickers, Bronson let Crystal know in no uncertain terms (including four-lettered words) that he wouldn't accept a role where his character died. (Crystal silently wondered then why Bronson did The Magnificent Seven. I'd also like to add The Mechanic.) However, around the same time, Bronson was offered the lead role in the action-free and heart-warming Christmas television movie Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus. When he read the script, he didn't hesitate to tell the producers that he loved it, and totally embraced the role of a grieving widow who is eventually warmed by Christmas spirit. There were also a few occasions when the very serious method actor Marlon Brando seized offers to play comedies, such as The Freshman (which showed his silly side), as well as Free Money (the less said about his comic performance there, the better.)

Recently I came across another case where a very well-known actor who temporarily went away from the kind of productions he was well known for signing up for. That actor was Christopher Lee (House Of The Long Shadows), an actor best known for appearing in a wide range of movies (not just horror), and these movie projects usually had some professionalism towards them, The Keeperfrom ample budgets to skilled directors. But in the mid 1970s, Lee temporarily went in a new direction when he signed up for the movie The Keeper. How different was this direction? Well... the movie was Canadian and a non-union production, it had a budget of just 135,000 Canadian dollars (really low even then), and its screenwriter/director was someone who had never written for or directed a feature film before! Why did Lee agree to do the movie? Well, according to an interview from the Vancouver newspaper The Province that I uncovered in my research, Lee said, "The character [I'm playing] is extremely well-written. It has so many sides to it that I said to my wife when I read it, 'Here, this is good.' I gave it to her to read, and she said, 'Yes, it's awfully good.'... The story is an excellent one... It amused me. It has a certain demented quality to it." Indeed, Lee was so enthusiastic for the project that he accepted the less than lavish production surroundings, just as long as he was always provided some hot tea close at hand. However, despite Lee's presence and great support for The Keeper, it apparently never got a theatrical release anywhere in the world, and spent nine years on the shelf after completion until it was aired once on late night American television. Two years later it got a very limited and quiet videocasette release in Canada and a few other countries, which did very little to raise the public's knowledge of the movie. When it got a DVD release in 2006, it was once again completely unnoticed by everyone. Naturally, when I learned about The Keeper, I knew it would be at least of some interest to me and possibly others, even if the movie failed at its intentions. So what's the movie about? Well, it takes a while to put all the pieces together (more on this narrative style later), but we eventually learn that in Vancouver, British Columbia (wow, a rare Canadian movie actually taking place in Canada!), there is a private investigator named Dick Driver (played by Tell Schreiber) with a partner named Mae (played by Sally Drake). Dick has been requested by a client to do some special investigating. He is told that in the Underwood Asylum, a mysterious unnamed man (played by Lee) seems to be conducting strange and illegal experiments on the patients there. Further raising suspicion is that Dick eventually learns from the police that many of the patients have been wealthy people, and all these wealthy people quickly died in the asylum in mysterious circumstances. Despite these signs of danger, Dick has got Mae to go undercover as a new patient to the asylum. As you probably guessed, as Dick's investigation goes on, he starts to uncover some big secrets, some of which are dangerous. Not only does Dick have to deal with those secrets, he has to also ensure the safety of Mae, who soon finds herself in great danger from Lee's character...

You might understandably think that with The Keeper having that aforementioned low budget, the producers only managed to have Lee on set or on location for one or two days, in other words pulling off a Bruce Willis before Willis was even an actor. But no - Lee appears fairly regularly during the course of the movie, making him even more of a trouper. However, despite his ample screen time, I think most Lee fans will be disappointed by their idol's performance here. Sometimes he does add relish to his line readings, I admit, but more often than not he just talks in a routine manner. There are a few other times when he seems a bit unsure on how to perform. I don't put any blame on Lee himself for his mostly disappointing performance, but on writer/director T. Y. Drake (whose only other notable credit was writing Terror Train) for not coaxing Lee enough; even a great actor like Lee needed proper direction to shine. But I think Lee was also inconsistent because of Drake's writing of his character. We learn pretty much nothing about "The Keeper", not even what his real name is. Although a motivation is eventually uncovered, we don't learn what drove The Keeper to this point, like his past or what he is hoping to do once he has finished his scheme. How was Lee expected to perform well with such limited material? In fairness, I will admit that Lee's performance in The Keeper is Academy Award material compared to the rest of the cast, all consisting of a bunch of nobodies that were probably just picked off the street. They run the gamut between blandness and haughty, more often than not one of the two extremes instead of somewhere comfortably and acceptably in the middle. It probably goes without saying that their characters are even weaker written than Lee's, showing nothing that makes them stand out.

I'd like to add one more thing about The Keeper's supporting cast - they all seem to know that they are to some degree over their heads, and as they act bland or haughty, you can see the uncertainty in their eyes. One possible reason might be the plot structure of the movie. Instead of starting at point A, then going to B, C, and so on, the movie instead starts around C, and then proceeds to eventually reveal what would have been in A and B. While I do applaud the attempt to tell this detective story in a manner much different than usual, the execution isn't very satisfying. When you do this kind of unconventional plotting, you still have to have some kind of narrative thread that gives the audience some handle of what's going on, even if they don't know all the details. But here, the murky details often overpower the narrative thread, becoming nagging in the viewer's mind until they are revealed. It's also hard to care about the character of detective Driver and his quest when you don't know for the longest time who his client is and what his client wants him to do. Eventually the pieces all come together, I admit, but it's not only a somewhat rough ride to that point, but for the rest of the movie as well. The story of The Keeper is a really long slog. Although it runs for about 87 minutes, the amount of story in the movie would be best suited for an hour-long slot on television - maybe even just a thirty-minute slot. The movie often seems like it's taking its sweet time, whether it's with scenes that run longer than they should, or even whole scenes that serve pretty much no purpose, if any. There are various other script flaws in the movie, a lot of it dialogue that doesn't really sound like what people would say even in an outlandish situation as this, like when Driver while undercover tells The Keeper of a supposed long tradition of incest in his family tree.

The last ten or fifteen minutes of The Keeper are probably the worst written section of the entire movie, coming across as if writer/director Drake was in a rush while planning how to wrap up all the various plot threads. It's so jumbled that you can forget about getting any last-minute chills or scares, since viewers will be concentrating on keeping everything straight in their minds. Not that the first seventy or so minutes are any scarier; they aren't. The Keeper 's method of means to his scheme (a machine with dials and levers, if you must know) is right out of a Poverty Row production made decades earlier, being more weird and laughable than disturbing or scary. Other sequences that should also pack a punch, like people being shot at, are unbelievably flat and come across as matter-of-fact instead. Getting back to speaking of Poverty Row, the rest of The Keeper's surroundings aren't any better than those Poverty Row productions. Some of it is idiocy from those behind the camera, like how the costumer gave the chief of police character a full-length wool coat and black gloves while he's indoors working at the police station. Many indoor and outdoor scenes look like they were lit by headlights from a nearby car. More often than not, the movie suffers from sheer cheapness. I admire the producers for managing to wrangle up some period details like classic automobiles (sometimes more than one in a particular shot!), though such details and others (like background extras) more often than not seem almost or completely non-existent. Sets and props are at a bare minimum, and when they do appear, more often than not they are botched in their presentation. Whose idea was it for the police chief to work in one room at the police station that looks like a living room, and later in another room at the station that has a bathroom sink? As you can see, The Keeper is definitely not a keeper even for the most avid Christopher Lee fans. Fortunately, he survived this experience and later got back to prospering, though not right away. A year later, Lee was actually willing to return to Canada to make the unbelievably and equally awful Canadian sci-fi movie Starship Invasions. I wonder what Lee and his wife had to say to each other about the script for that movie. Lord, I hope it was, "Look, honey, I see here the down payment for our new summer home!"

(Posted January 4, 2022)

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)

See also: House Of The Long Shadows, The Resurrected, Rituals

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