When River Phoenix died in October 1993, he was three weeks away from completing his performance in Dark Blood, an $8 million indie film making its North American premiere at the Miami International Film Festival March 6. The production had already done five weeks of shooting on location in southern Utah. In this lurid modern film noir, Phoenix was cast as "Boy," a mysterious, part-Hopi Indian widower living in the shadow of the Los Alamos nuclear site, where he comes to the aid of two distressed motorists, a Hollywood actor (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife (Judy Davis) en route to a lover's weekend in the desert. Inviting the couple back to his ramshackle squat, Boy at first appears to be their savior. As he proceeds to delay fixing their broken-down Bentley or using his own truck to drive them to the nearest town, it becomes clear he is in fact their captor.
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Phoenix was hardly the first movie star to die in the middle of production. Just a few months prior, Brandon Lee had been killed in an accident on the set of The Crow; a few months later, comedian John Candy suffered a fatal heart attack while filming Wagons East. And throughout movie history, performers from Tyrone Power and Jean Harlow to James Dean and Heath Ledger have passed on before completing what would prove to be their last celluloid testaments. But where all of the above films were eventually finished using some combination of recasting, stand-ins, and more recently CGI, Dark Blood was shut down by the film's insurance provider following Phoenix's death and the existing footage locked away in a film lab. And there, for the past 20 years, it had seemed destined to remain, joining other never-finished films such as Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and Orson Welles's The Other Side of the Wind.
In 1993, the official explanation for Dark Blood's scrapping was that there were too many Phoenix-centric scenes left to shoot for the film to be completed using a stand-in, while it would prove too expensive and time-consuming (given the cast's other commitments) to start over from the beginning with another actor. Now that Dark Blood has finally seen the light of day, in a special out-of-competition screening at last week's Berlin Film Festival, another possibility has come to light: that the insurance company saw the dailies and realized they had a lemon on their hands.
Dark Blood was written and directed by George Sluizer, a Dutchman who turned a lot of heads with his coolly disturbing 1988 thriller The Vanishing, in which a methodical psycho promises the boyfriend of a long-missing woman that he can find out what happened only be agreeing to experience exactly what she did. Unfortunately, nothing on Sluizer's resume before or since was nearly as good, including the abhorrent Hollywood remake of The Vanishing Sluizer directed himself in 1993. Dark Blood was his next project, and now it is finally seeing the light of day, cobbled together by the 80-year-old, wheelchair-bound director from the extant footage, which he has admitted to stealing upon learning that it was about to be destroyed.
To bridge the various narrative gaps caused by the missing scenes, Sluizer has inserted still images accompanied by an audio track in which he himself reads the unfilmed script pages -- a strategy that has the unintended effect of sending this already overripe howler into full-blown meta-hilarity. In one missing scene, which would have shown Phoenix's character bandaging Davis' wounded foot, Sluizer's dry, Dutch-accented monotone announces: "It's an intimate thing to open someone else's flesh, a woman's flesh." And later, performing a bit of Phoenix's dialogue: "I've been close enough to evil to kiss it on the lips."
There have been other notable attempts over the decades to resurrect or reconstruct aborted film projects, usually in the form of documentaries made by film historians or archivists, like the 1993 It's All True, which pieced together the existing footage from another stalled Welles project, a triptych of stories set in Mexico and South America. Then in 2009, the historian Serge Bromberg managed to convince the widow of French suspense maestro Henri-Georges Clouzot to give him access to the footage from Clouzot's legendary unfinished final feature, L'Enfer, a wildly stylized tale of jealousy and murder that began shooting in 1964 and quickly fell apart. Bromberg supplemented Clouzot's footage with new scenes filmed on a Paris soundstage, featuring the actors Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Jacques Gamblin in the roles originally played by Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani, creating an approximation of what the completed film might have looked like. In both of these cases, however, the existing material pointed to a film worthy of greater discussion and exploration, whereas Dark Blood quickly announces itself as pure folly -- a movie that, had it made it to theaters two decades ago, would be long forgotten by now, save for the occasional late-night airing in the basic-cable badlands.
It's important to note that, because all of the exterior shooting on Dark Blood was finished, and because most of the film takes place outdoors, long sections of the movie pass by without interruption from Sluizer's audio commentary. And it's more than enough to tell that the movie would never have been less than ridiculous, from the suggestion that Davis' character is a former Playboy pinup, to the notion that Phoenix finds Davis so irresistible that it pushes him towards madness -- the cast of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel generated more erotic tension. Which is to say nothing of Sluizer's strained attempt to say something meaningful about the social and psychological fallout of the atomic age (Phoenix's wife is said to have died of "the radiation cancer"). More to the point: the movie is a feast of good actors acting badly, including the gifted Phoenix, who's been allowed to snarl and sneer his way through a rather tedious Jack Nicholson impersonation. Had the actor -- who made Dark Blood on the heels of Peter Bogdanovich's wan country music drama The Thing Called Love and Sam Shepard's epochally pretentious western Silent Tongue -- lived, he would have done well to seek out new representation.
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River Phoenix's Dark Blood screens Wednesday, March 6, at 7 p.m. at the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts, 174 E. Flagler St., Miami. Tickets cost $13-$14. Visit miamifilmfestival.com.
Scott Foundas is chief film critic for the Village Voice. Follow Scott on Twitter at @FoundasOnFilm.