Over-budget, behind schedule, and completely ignored: The movie Michael Mann disowned

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In a sign of things to come, Michael Mann made his directorial debut on a kinetic, propulsive thriller boasting plenty of intelligence, authenticity, and shades of grey, with plenty of style to go along with the substance. He may have been a new kid on the block, but his stall was already set out.

That came in 1981’s Thief, and in the 1990s and 2000s, Mann evolved into one of Hollywood’s most celebrated auteurs, embarking on a remarkable hot streak that yielded the classic crime story Heat, incendiary drama The Insider, bruising biopic Ali, and the nerve-shredding Collateral within the space of a decade.

Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and especially Blackhat didn’t hit the same heights, but the filmmaker’s name was nonetheless synonymous with slick, fast-paced, and impressively-assembled thrillers that thrived in the seedy underbelly of crime, double-crossing treachery, and the blurred lines between both sides of the law.

However, he did make a horror movie, not that Mann wants anyone to remember. His second feature saw him write the screenplay and direct an adaptation of F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep, which stands out as an anomaly among his credits. Not only because he’s never come close to touching the genre ever again, but because he washed his hands of it so thoroughly, it’s as if he’s spent the last 40 years pretending it doesn’t even exist.

Schlocky to its very core, the story finds a band of Nazi soldiers accidentally reawaken an ancient evil when they set up camp in a Romanian fortress at the height of World War II, oblivious to the fact there’s a creature dwelling inside ready, willing, and able to turn them inside out in the name of accomplishing its ultimate goal of being set free to wreak havoc upon the world.

It’s distinctly B-tier stuff, then, which makes it strange to discover Mann was never really sold on making a horror flick at all. In fact, he told Film Comment before The Keep was released in 1983 how “the idea of making this film within the genre of horror films appealed to me not at all.” Still, he was keen to stress, “that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t scary.” Not just terrifying, either, but “also very erotic in parts.”

Mann doesn’t seem like an obvious fit for horror, and he wasn’t interested in the medium, which may explain what happened to both The Keep and his opinion of it. Handed a production schedule of 13 weeks, extensive reshoots at the studio’s behest saw the film rumble on for nine weeks longer than initially intended.

Inclement weather caused numerous delays, the special effects needed to realise the monstrous beast of Molasar were under constant revision because Mann couldn’t decide how he wanted it to look, the visual effects supervisor died two weeks into post-production to plunge The Keep into chaos, the budget spiralled out of control, and the director’s unwieldy 210-minute cut was trimmed by Paramount first to an even 120, and then even further down to 96 minutes in its theatrical form.

The sound mix was unfinished, The Keep‘s theatrical debut was pushed back by over six months, critics savaged it, flopped at the box office, and wasn’t even made available on DVD or Blu-ray until it was rolled out in 2020, and even then that was only in Australia. Mann never talks about it, nobody ever brings it up when discussing his past work in conversations or interviews, and he’s never shown even the slightest inclination to acknowledge the cult favourite as a meaningful part of his legacy.

It exists whether he likes it or not, and a lot of people love it so much they’ve mounted campaigns to see a director’s cut. Has Mann paid any heed to those calls? Of course, he hasn’t.

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