Friday, 19 July 2013

To Keep the Darkness Sealed Within

I love this production sketch from The Keep, depicting a soldier obliterated by the malevolent entity imprisoned in the mysterious Carpathian citadel of the title... Despite numerous viewings over the years - the most recent, just a few weeks ago - I've never quite warmed to The Keep, its mixture of Jewish mysticism, villainous Nazis, tons of dry ice and a big rubber monster doesn't quite gel. On its theatrical release the film was met with a decidedly lukewarm reception - for years the film occupied the exact same shelf space in my local video shop - but its fortunes began to change in the early 90's when Paramount issued a widescreen laserdisc and more appreciative audiences were able to properly savour Michael Mann's terrific visuals. Nowadays, the film is hailed as one of the great lost cult items of the 80's, but why the film has yet to secure a DVD release remains a mystery.

In 2004 a DVD was tentatively announced, but of course never materialized fuelling speculation that Michael Mann has actively supressed the film - unlikely considering Paramount owns the property. Furthermore it's been widely reported that Mann remains deeply bitter about the film after Paramount reduced his alleged 3-hour director's cut to a more palatable 96mins. However fanciful it seems that Mann would deliver a 3-hour horror film for release, the film certainly feels like it has been edited by an unsympathetic hand, which would account for the film's incoherency and conspicuous tonal shifts. Another theory, and in my opinion the one that holds most weight, concerns the long running difficulties between Paramount and Virgin regarding the use of Tangerine Dream music heard in the film, which Michael Mann lifted from a selection of their albums, significantly Logos Live (1982), plus excerpts from Rubycon (1975) and White Eagle (1982). In fact the film has never had an official soundtrack album, Virgin's plan to release one in 1984 were quietly shelved for no apparent reason. In 1997 Tangerine Dream released through their own label The Keep: Official Motion Picture Soundtrack, a limited edition album which mostly included music not used in the final film, and strictly speaking should not be considered an official soundtrack.

The Keep may not have a DVD or Blu-Ray release for now but the film is available to stream at Amazon and youtube is currently hosting a very watchable copy of the widescreen laserdisc.  Not one of Michael Mann's best films for sure but a fascinating one nonetheless and certainly worth a look in preparation for Chronicles of a WWII Fairy Tale: The Making Of Michael Mann's The Keep, a new feature-length documentary due for release at some point this year (to coincide with the film's 30th anniversary I suspect).


  1. I wanted to see this for years, none of my local video shops ever had a copy, so it wasn't until it turned up on Netflix that I got the chance to see it. I'd pretty much go along with your thoughts, I found it to be an interesting mess, completely all over the place but with plenty to make it worthwhile, yet still somewhat disappointing. I also thought it was one of the most of it's time films I've seen, a perfect example of the filmmaker's aesthetic ruining all of the art department's period efforts.

    Maybe a release will be forthcoming to coincide with the documentary, if it doesn't get a release then, surely it never will. Loved the music, I really need to pick up some T.D, given how much I love the Thief score.

  2. Yeah, a very frustrating experience I think, lots of good stuff and a lot of silly cringe worthy nonsense as well. I have a handful of these films in my life, films I want to like, that I haven't quite signed off on yet and I go back to every so often to see if the penny has dropped - Excalibur and Eyes Wide Shut are two that come to mind. Yeah, I agree about a Keep release - if it doesn't happen this year it's been truly left on the scrapheap. I think it will though. Yeah, the Tangerine Dream music is really terrific, this is really the final phase of the band's great run of albums, and despite them turning into card-carrying new agers, for me they will always be giants of electronica. I wish I could remember where I read it but apparently Michael Mann approached Tangerine Dream to score the Miami Vice series, but the band had too much on, and Jan Hammer got the gig. Jeez, all this talk has put in the mood for Thief or Sorcerer...

    1. Ahhh - yes, The Keep! I too have similar memories of seeing the VHS box of this film gathering dust on the shelves of my local video store. I saw it only the once many decades ago and somehow over the ensuing years I had remembered it to be a much better film than it actually was. When I eventually did see it again, about ten years, I had convinced a group of friends to watch it with me - telling them that it was a "lost classic." Oh dear - I had never felt so embarassed watching a film with a bunch of mates, it was a mess of a film with some really bad hammy acting!

    2. I know that pain Jay, I've done it a few times as well, showing a film off only to fall flat on your face when the audience is completely bored. It's something I almost never do anymore, because you end sitting there looking at the film through the other person's eyes, thinking "Jesus, I never realised how long this scene went on for". I mean, I'll never show my wife Apocalypse Now or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - two of my favourite films but they mean nothing to her !
      "So...what did you think of that Hon?"
      "Oh, y'know it was kinda long, a bit boring towards the end"

  3. Ooh - I would add that I do think the central premis of the story is a great one. The production design that evoked German expressionist cinema was also a great addition.
    I only recently found out that Enkil Bilal (the great France based comic book writer/artist) designed the monster, I discovered some of his designs for the monster in one of his art books. I would love to see more production designs from the film.
    I would love to see a remake of this film/book that captures some of the production design but improves on all other areas of this film.

  4. The production design is one of the film's strengths undoubtedly. Interesting that you mention German Expressionism - you should check out the 1920 film The Golem, which has parallels with The Keep. Yep, I've heard F. Paul Wilson's novel is required reading for Keep fans, as it straightens out a lot of film's muddled plot. I've found a copy for Kindle so I'm looking forward to reading it. Anyone wishing to do the same, can grab a copy here (the rar file contains the novel in various formats incl. word, pdf, mobi)