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Incredibly Unsettling, Incredibly Watchable River Phoenix Last Film Premieres at Berlin, But Will It Get a Release?

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire February 14, 2013 at 11:03AM

On October 31, 1993, Tupac Shakur was arrested for shooting two off-duty cops. Meatloaf's "I'd Do Anything for Love" had just become the number one song in the U.S. The actor River Phoenix, the brother of Joaquin, had just finished shooting on location in Utah for George Sluizer's thriller "Dark Blood."
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Berlinale Boy (River Phoenix) attempts to seduce Buffy (Judy Davis) in "Dark Blood."

On October 31, 1993, Tupac Shakur was arrested for shooting two off-duty cops.  Meatloaf's "I'd Do Anything for Love" had just become the number one song in the U.S.  The actor River Phoenix, the brother of Joaquin, had just finished shooting on location in Utah for George Sluizer's thriller "Dark Blood."  Back in Hollywood to shoot interiors for the film, River Phoenix was at Los Angeles' The Viper Room when he died that night after overdosing on cocaine and heroin. 

Shortly thereafter, production stopped on the film. Until 2012, the film was kept in canisters, unedited.

After having its World Premiere in the country that funded its finishing (the Netherlands) this fall, George Sluizer's "Dark Blood" premiered at the 2013 Berlinale today.

The film starts with a voiceover from Sluizer (doing his best Werner Herzog) explaining the circumstances of the film you are about to see.  Sluizer explains that he was provoked to make the film after being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.  The film as is, he explains, is like a chair with only three legs:  the first two were in the cans he recovered, the third leg comes from the film's 21st Century post-production and voiceover.  The fourth leg will always be missing, Sluizer says, but with three legs the chair can stand on its own. 

READ MORE: Yes, Plans Exist to Finish the River Phoenix Vehicle 'Dark Blood'

In "Dark Blood," Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce star as a Hollywood couple, Buffy and Henry, taking a break from it all in the New Mexico desert.  They drive their classy Bentley on until it breaks down, and while the couple unsuccessfully waits for a car to drive past, Buffy sees a light off in the distance.  After walking to the house of a young man -- we will call him Boy, because that is what Sluizer calls him in his voiceover -- Buffy brings Henry to his house.  After towing the car to the nearby town of St. John, they wait with Boy until it's ready.  Boy, though, a widower whose wife was killed by a cancer caused by American nuclear bomb testing, finds himself in love with Buffy.  The couple feels trapped by him, and tries their best to convince Boy to take them to St. John.

The film in its present state is really something. Sluizer's voiceover explanation of the scenes that were not shot is at once poetic and unbelievably graphic.  While thrillers and other genre flicks may have moved on from the subjects that inspire the tension in "Dark Blood" -- Native American curses against the white man and the political, cultural and health effects of nuclear bomb testing -- "Dark Blood," like so many genre films and television shows from the 90s (think "The X-Files") got better with age.

In a press conference for the film at the Berlinale, Pryce recounted his time with Phoenix:

Berlinale Actor Jonathan Pryce, director George Sluizer, and cinematographer Edward Lachman at the Berlinale press conference for "Dark Blood."

I found him a remarkable young man.  I can't believe now that he was 23 at the time.  He had such an old head on those shoulders.  He was very serious about his work.  I don't want to talk about him other than that, apart from saying all the weeks we were together in Utah, I did spend every day and all day with him.  At no point did I experience him using or abusing drugs in any way, shape or form. I'd have known. I'm not a drug user myself, but I'd have known. It was a time in his life that he was committed to not using drugs. I loved him a lot and I love his memory. 

Cinematographer Edward Lachman remembered a shot that Sluizer was not able to recover:

The last shot we did with River was in this tunnel. He does this soliloquoy with Judy Davis. This was the last take we filmed with River. The camera was still rolling. It was lit from overhead; we turned off the lights. River became a perfect silhouette. He walked up to the camera and his body blocked the lens. We had film dailies. We all went that Monday and watched that footage. He had passed away that Sunday morning. He became like a ghost. There are many things around this film that were extraordinary. That footage is lost.

Sluizer added that the footage was possibly lost in London, when who-knows-who had their hands on it:

The only thing I know is that some rolls have been seen or found in London somewhere. Between 1993 and 1999, for those six years, some people have been looking at or taking material. I don't know who or what. I had nothing to do with the material between 1993 and 1999, when I took the material out of storage. Before that, I had zero contact with it before 1999.

In fact, had Sluizer not saved the film from London, he said, it probably would have been destroyed in its entirety. After being asked why he decided to salvage this film, Sluizer told the crowd:

There were two motivations. The first motivation was to take away the material from the storage because it was going to be destroyed. The insurance company was going to destroy the material in two days. I was in Holland, not in L.A. then, and I had to react fast.  Once it was out of the hands of the people who were going to burn it, it laid in my care for many years, waiting for something to happen with it. I was making other films at the time. It was safe but nothing happened until 2007 when I got an aneurysm and I was condemned by the doctors and I said to myself, "Before I die, I'd like to put 'Dark Blood' together as best I can." That was 2009 I started.

It's possible that "Dark Blood" will never get a proper release. Sluizer, talking with unabashed honesty explained:

The only thing I can tell you today is that the holding company which owns the insurance company, so many insurance companies later, has not signed a deal with my production company for release. It doesn't mean there will not be an agreement tomorrow or the day after.  Today, I cannot say, because they're billionaires, money market people who have -- by mistake in their stock of hospitals, buildings, and hotels -- a film, and they don't care about movies, and they don't care about culture. They don't care about money under $500 million.  The thing is that you have to come to terms on another level. 

Watch the trailer for "Dark Blood" and browse other information about it on Indiewire's page for the film.

This article is related to: Dark Blood, Berlin International Film Festival, River Phoenix, George Sluizer