Nobody does mood like Michael Mann. When it comes to a stylistic approach to filmmaking, the director of‘The Last Of The Mohicans and Heat has, through a thirty-odd year career, produced a visual flavour all of his own. Nobody does brooding cityscapes and saturated establishing shots like he can. Streets of various metropolises are a playground for gangsters, hustlers and heroes, as they swagger, sunglasses in hand, through tight scripts and tense action sequences.
So, it’s a surprise, then, to know that, along with his love for realistic gritty urban sprawls filled with long lingering sunsets and the lowlifes that inhabit them, while cutting his teeth style-wise, Mann actually directed a fantasy film.
Back in 1983, Mann moved away from his love affair with urban American crime (although, in fairness, he transcends genres as well as anyone) and turned his attention to World War II and Eastern Europe and directed a superb little fantasy/horror film called The Keep.
While not as popular or as well known as some of his other work, The Keep is based on the novel by F. Paul Wilson and is a dark horror tale that sees the occupation of a Eastern European keep by the Nazi’s during World War II, who in turn unleash an ancient supernatural creature and reignite an eons-old war between two supernatural enemies.
Similar in look and style to Ridley Scott’s Legend, The Keep is an oddity of a film, in that it’s a fantastically produced, stylish piece of filmmaking, and yet hardly anyone has seen it.
Filled with Mann-isms, the film is jam-packed with lingering set-ups shots, slow motion action, dry ice and backlit strobe effects, and frankly, for its time is a beautifully shot film. A sort of grown-up fairy tale, the film has an eerie atmosphere to it and has all the archetypal fantasy elements thrown in, castles, monsters and even sword wielding heroes, all wrapped up in a gritty World War II setting, with location filming in Wales.
Although the book on which this film is based is just one of a lengthy series of adult fantasy tales that explore a never-ending war between the main hero, Glaeken, and the various manifestations of the evil creature, Molasar, exploring why and how Glaeken built the keep in the first place (all of which is really missing in the film), the timeless story of ancient good and evil is pretty easy to follow and plays out in a great, if cut down, pacy hour and a half. (Mann’s original edit was three hours!)
There are reasons for this which will be covered here later, but you would think that, coming out in 1983, this would be a cheap schlock horror film aimed for the growing home video market at the time. But this is certainly not the case, which can be seen by the quality of the film itself, not to mention its stellar cast which is surprisingly full of big name actors such as Jürgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellen. It also has a great score by prog synth masters, Tangerine Dream.
So, why, then, is such a film as stylish and high quality as this highly unlikely to get the high definition treatment? Essentially, it’s all down to issues of copyright, and unlike a lot of other films, it has nothing to do with the actual filmmaking process, but rather the main bone of contention is actually the music and score of the film.
Although I’m not professing to not be a legal mind in these matters, it seems that the major problem surrounding the issues are between the film’s publishers, Paramount, and the musicians of Tangerine Dream themselves. While details are tricky to actually get hold of, the main sticking is to do with ‘Exploitations Rights’ of the music for the film. It seems that, due to some contractual issues, Tangerine Dream didn’t own the rights to the soundtrack of the film. In fact, music company Virgin and Paramount did.
However, this didn’t stop the music group releasing albums and work which used part of the score from The Keep.This would seem a pretty straightforward case, until you take into account the fact that the film’s own score is, in turn, variants and adaptations of music that Tangerine Dream had already released. As you can see, legally this is messy.
The legal issues surrounding who owns the rights to publish the isolated score and what can and cannot be used in other works have been going on for nearly thirty years, and as such, have stopped the release of the movie on any other media apart from VHS and LaserDisc, missing the DVD market completely.
While you cannot purchase copies of the ‘official’ music, as there’s never been an official release of the score, either from Virgin or Paramount, you can, if you’re lucky, get your hands on one from Tangerine Dream themselves, who produced a very limited (under 500) run on CD, and it’s seen as one of the most collectable pieces of modern film music memorabilia.
More disappointing, however, is the fact that you now cannot buy the film legally in any ‘modern’ format, with the last release here in the UK being through a certain (probably only remaining) high street music retailer (HMV, a free plug, as they seem to need it at the moment) on VHS, and while I’m lucky to have a copy of the film on this format, I suspect most people no longer don’t have the means to watch the film.
It would seem, then, that until the legal aspects of this cinematic oddity are sorted out, Mann completists, horror fans, and those fascinated with unobtainable films (like myself) will still be denied ever seeing this film converted to a high definition format. Which is a shame, as while some of the style is very of its time, it’s still a beautifully shot and produced movie and would make a perfect transition to this format.
Experiencing those Mann visual signatures in 1080p, the superb location shots and, for its time, eerie and well presented special effects in high definition are, for the time, anyway, just wishful thinking.
Here’s a trailer for the film, complete with appropriate VHS scan lines…