That Australian DVD of The Keep Everyone's Buzzing About

There haven't been many more frustrating cases of films on home video than Michael Mann's The Keep (though I can think of a few).  There has been no DVD release in the US and no blu-ray release anywhere in the world.  It wasn't until 2017 that we got any kind of non-bootleg release, only in Australia, in 2017.  But it was an old fullscreen rip, and even the legitimacy of that disc is highly questionable (it has a UPC and is listed in the usual catalogs, but doesn't credit a distributor anywhere on its packaging).  Only now in 2020 do we at least have something in proper widescreen thanks to Via Vision finally taking hand of Paramount's unreleased catalog titles down in Australia.
And it's worth caring about, because The Keep is pretty neat.  It reminds me a lot of Michele Soavi's The Church and The Sect, from its "dreamlike" logic to its vibrant score (in this case, famously by Tangerine Dream).  It's a wildly ambitious tale, based on a novel by F. Paul Wilson, about Nazis who set up base in an ancient Romanian keep inhabited by an ancient evil.  The oppressed locals start see the being in the castle as "a hammer" to eradicate the Nazis, although they have no way to control it once it's set free.  And to further complicate matters, Scott Glenn plays a sort space alien who lives to battle the being in the keep and he's got a laser staff.  Yeah, it's an odd story, in that it attempts to deal with very heavy, deadly serious content like the holocaust and the morality of war, but does it with space vampires and Ghostbusters-style special effects.  Meanwhile, Mann's shooting the thing like a music video with lots of dry ice and slow motion.  Photographically, it's a weird dark fantasy... again, very much like Soavi's work.  The advantages Mann has, though, are major studio production values and a terrific cast including Das Boot's Jorgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellan.  You can feel the ideal blend of high and low-brow that Mann is shooting for, but it just gets so damn silly.
A lot of the blame for that is typically laid at the feet of Paramount, who forced Mann to heavily cut down the theatrical cut.  Fans have spent decades crying for a decade, fueled by photos and low quality footage of deleted scenes from alternate TV edits, the trailer, and a supposed director's assembly cut.  Another blow was that, even before these cuts, visual effects artist Wally Veevers died during production, so a number of effects sequences are compromised and a final dramatic showdown couldn't be completed.  Plus, anyone who's read the book knows there's a lot left out.  But honestly, I'm not so sure a director's cut would help all that much.  Much of what I've seen described online seems to be mostly additional exposition explaining what's already evident in the film if you're paying attention, and a couple more fights that would've done more to hurt the pacing than anything.
For one thing, I've seen the extended ending, and while I understand it's closer to the book, it doesn't fit as well with the alternate version of the story that is Mann's film.  In the movie, Glenn's character is just an unrelatable third party who detracts from the more meaningful climax between McKellan and the monster.  As it is, he interacts so little with the plot so little that when he does, it feels like an arbitrary deus ex machina breaking up the drama.  And the idea of all the additional scenes, which fans hope would flesh his character out and make the film gel more, and feel more coherent, I feel would really just take the film further off the rails.  The fact that Glenn's giving a detached, robotic performance in order to seem alien saps the life out of all his scenes anyway.  Honestly, they should've cut his character out right from the scripting stage, but I guess they didn't have the nerve to veer that far from the novel, which was much better suited for sustaining a character like his.

Oh well.  Ultimately, I think this cut, flawed as it is, is pretty much the best cut (or at least, an ideal director's cut would only make minor changes, and still leave a lot of the famously missing sequences as "deleted scenes"), which may somewhat explain Mann's continued reluctance to go back and re-edit the film all these years.  Plus there's the question of which film elements still exist, if any, and apparent difficulties licensing Tangerine Dream's music.  All together, it leads to this weird little Australian DVD being the best we've managed to get in 2020.
2020 AU Via Vision DVD.
A quick glance at the screenshots and you can immediately see why Via Vision couldn't, in good conscience, release this on blu.  But it is nice to have this on an anamorphic DVD, at least, after all these years.  The Keep had a couple of laserdisc releases; a fullscreen one in the 80s and a widescreen one in the 90s.  I suspect this is taken from the same master as that second master (also the one I believe Netflix once streamed), which isn't thrilling, but still the best release going to date.  The picture is presented in 2.36:1, and looks good in motion.  Colors (when there are any) are bright and attractive.  You mostly notice the restricted resolution when you struggle to read the on-screen captions, but even before clicking through these screenshots to view size, you can see the soft edges around everyone and everything.  Looking up close, then, is when the compression artifacts, digital noise and haloing really jump out at you.  Even for a DVD, this feels like an old master.  But honestly. we'd all be thrilled if this came out in 2001.
The trailer.
Audio is just the one basic stereo mix, which is mostly clean, but you'll notice a little hiss if you pump up the volume.  The sound mix itself can be a little rough, with lines of dialogue not quite matching, or volume dipping a bit low, but I suspect that's more to do with the film's rough cut nature than an issue with the disc... although if the blu-ray we all hope for ever happens, I wouldn't flag anyone for revision if they fixed it up a bit.  Anyway, it's clear enough for DVD.

There are no subtitle options, and the only extra is a fullscreen trailer, which you may want to check out if only for the glimpses at alternate takes and scenes.  One pleasant little surprise is that Via Vision included reversible cover art that hides the ugly blue ratings logos slapped all over the outside.
So it's a bummer that a director's cut, or even just a proper HD transfer of the theatrical version, seem to be as out of reach as ever.  But I do have a more optimistic outlook for the documentary A World War II Fairytale: The Making of Michael Mann's The Keep.  It was started independently way back in February 2011 and put up for crowd-funding support on IndieGoGo in late 2015.  Well, after all these years you may've assumed it withered on the vine, but I've looked into it and it's still kicking.  They've posted on Facebook as recently as last month that they're now in post production and working through Covid lock-down to finally finish their film.  So we'll probably get to see it after all, and at least in 2015, they said they'd be releasing it on BD.  So hopefully by 2021, we'll be able to combine that with this and we'll finally have the compelling Keep special edition we should've had twenty years ago... if not the boutique blu-ray we deserve today.

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