For a certain kind of film buff (me), having Michael Mann’s The Keep finally out on DVD is the biggest movie news this year.
Since its release in 1983 it’s been tough to track down – the new Australian release from Via Vision is literally the first time it’s had an official release on DVD, though bootlegs based on VHS copies have been doing the rounds for years – so to be able to just walk into a store and grab a copy is pretty astonishing.
But what about the movie itself?
Partly because of its obscure status and partly because it’s pretty weird (a horror movie with a Tangerine Dream soundtrack?), The Keep is one of those pop culture cul de sac’s film buffs can’t stop revisiting. While Mann’s lengthy career has covered a fair amount of ground, the idea of the director behind Heat and Miami Vice filming a straight-out horror movie – one set during World War 2 at that – seems just a little bizarre, and not just because Mann’s career has largely been focused on tough guy cops and real-life tales of heroism.
Whether you’re looking at his slick early 80s efforts (I say again: Miami Vice) or his later work pioneering the use of digital cameras on the big screen, Mann has always been one of Hollywood’s more distinctive stylists, more interested in modern alienation than supernatural terror.
It’s hard not to suspect part of the reason for The Keep’s obscurity is that Mann himself wasn’t all that keen to have it out there: only his second Hollywood feature (after the acclaimed crime drama Thief), it was a work-for-hire project with a thirteen-week shoot that was tough going even before it dragged out to 22 weeks. The result was a 210 minute film – which was a problem, as Mann was contractually obliged to provide a 120 minute version.
The ending was never properly settled, the special effects chief died before the effects were finalised, the trailer is full of moments cut from the finished film and – not surprisingly – it was a bomb at the box office. And yet it’s hard to deny that the cut down 96-minute version (which is all we have left) remains strangely compelling.
The story of a squad of German soldiers sent to investigate a sinister castle in the Romanian mountains only to find the Keep seems to have been built more to keep something in that keep invaders out, the mix of hard-bitten war drama and supernatural work together better than you might expect. Jürgen Prochnow is a war-weary regular officer; Gabriel Byrne is a sinister SS officer sent in to take care of what he believes is partisan activity once Prochnow’s men start messing around with forces beyond their comprehension (and get zapped as a result). Meanwhile, Scott Glenn is a supernatural force on his own who arrives to – possibly – do battle with whatever’s inside the Keep (a force that has already lured a doctor played by Ian McKellan over to his dark side), and if you’re getting the impression there’s a lot going on here you’re not wrong.
The best approach is to just go along with the ride: there’s not a lot else out there like it.
Written by Anthony Morris