Dark Blood, River Phoenix's final film

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Re: Dark Blood, River Phoenix's final film

Postby MovieWes » Tue Feb 26, 2013 8:27 pm

River Phoenix's final role is brought to light in this never-before-released 1993 effort from George Sluizer, which co-stars Judy Davis, Jonathan Pryce and Karen Black.

BERLIN -- An actor who was larger than life is given the chance to breathe again, if only in fragments, in director George Sluizer’s salvaged 1993 desert drama Dark Blood. Left unfinished when River Phoenix died of drug-related causes in the middle of shooting, this terrifically played and superbly photographed three-hander reveals to what extent the 23-year-old star was an intense and unpredictable talent -- one whose short but impressive career clearly was cut off at its prime. It’s also an engagingly modest low-key thriller, a curio item that’s half art house, half genre-jumper and entirely watchable despite the absence of several key scenes.

These sequences, most of them involving the escalating lust between Phoenix’s character and that played by Judy Davis, were meant to be shot toward the end of production, along with other interior scenes, including some with Karen Black (who’s only in the movie for a few beats). After the actor’s death, the insurance company laid claims to the film’s negative, and following many years of legal complications, Sluizer was able to secure Dutch financing and “complete” the movie, using original stills and his own, matter-of-fact voice-over to connect the plot points.

Although the end result can be seen as both an homage to Phoenix’s talent and a love letter to a movie that never was, it also can feel like a puzzle whose missing pieces have been sketched in with a pencil, and as such, it lacks commercial viability, at least on a large scale. After an international premiere out of Competition in Berlin, it most likely will continue its festival tour, and then -- rights issues permitting -- go on to niche theatrical runs, cable, VOD and a DVD release whose bonuses are certainly worth waiting for.

Adapted by Sluizer from a screenplay written by Jim Barton (who later co-founded TiVo), the film offers up an offbeat twist on a well-tread story -- something akin to Knife in the Water meets The Hills Have Eyes, with the latter’s flesh-eating mutants replaced by a mournful loner who’s part-Native American (the “dark blood” of the title) and altogether horny and weird.

But the “Boy” (Phoenix), as he’s known as, only comes into the picture once married movie stars Harry (Jonathan Pryce) and Buffy (Davis) make their way as sightseers across the Arizona desert in their incongruously large Bentley, only to have it break down in the middle of a deserted nuclear testing ground. When Buffy sees a light in the distance, she treks over to an isolated cabin and, after much huffing and puffing, arrives on Boy's doorstep and collapses into his open arms.

Such a moment normally would have been followed by what Sluizer describes as a “flesh opening scene” played up for its eroticism, in which Boy would have removed glass splinters from Buffy’s foot. Alas, this and other sequences -- essential to such a sexually infused drama -- are left to the viewer’s imagination, though the heat between the two characters is palpable from the get-go and only deepens when Harry comes back into the picture and quickly catches wind of their carnal tension.

Even though Boy sends the Bentley off to a local mechanic, he seems to be doing everything to keep the couple stranded in his desert hideout, and he offers plenty of early hints that he might be slightly, if definitely, crazed. We eventually learn that his wife died of cancer and his Hopi grandfather of melancholia, which helps to explain his offbeat gloominess, not to mention an underground atomic bunker he’s decorated with hundreds of Native idols, dusty psychology books and candlelit altars.

But it’s Phoenix’s performance that makes Boy such an intriguingly elusive character, and, not unlike his brother Joaquin’s recent turn in The Master, you never really know what he’s going to do next. This is most evident when Boy takes Harry on a hike in the surrounding cliffs, in a lengthy sequence Phoenix infuses with a mix of strange charm and gun-swinging menace, eventually ditching Harry -- only to pick him up later, as he does again later on.

The sequence also is highlighted by stunning exterior cinematography from Ed Lachman (The Virgin Suicides, I’m Not There), which doesn’t feel a day old despite the two decades that have passed since the film was shot. Coupled with that are the convincingly creepy decors, especially Boy’s remote cottage – a hodgepodge of broken wood and atomic spare parts designed by the team of Jan Roefls and the late Ben van Os, both of whom worked extensively with Peter Greenaway, among other auteurs.

Indeed, Dark Blood is one of those slightly loopy and rare items that lies somewhere between Hollywood and the art house, combining the former’s genre know-how and talent (Pryce and Davis also are on point here) with the latter’s eccentricities and penchant for unhappy endings. This is no real surprise coming from Sluizer, whose 1988 Franco-Dutch existential thriller The Vanishing (which he remade, in a lesser studio version, in 1993), tackled similar themes, especially a man’s desire to possess a woman at all costs and the dementia that results.

But there’s also something innately tender about what lurks beneath Boy’s lust for Buffy -- a tenderness no doubt brought out by Phoenix’s innocent gaze and the foreknowledge that this would be his last role. “I guess you learn that the deepest wounds are self-inflicted,” Harry tells Boy early on, and as this three-way thriller comes to its sad, violent and rather surprising conclusion, his words unfortunately ring true on all levels.

Production companies: Sluizer Films
Cast: River Phoenix, Judy Davis, Jonathan Pryce, Karen Black
Director: George Sluizer
Screenwriters: Jim Barton, George Sluizer
Producers: George Sluizer, JoAnne Sellar
Director of photography: Ed Lachman
Production designers: Jan Roefls, Ben van Os
Music: Florencia di Concilio, James Michael Taylor
Costume designer: Jane Robinson
Editor: Michiel Reichwein
Sales Agent: Eye International
No rating, 86 minutes
"Young men make wars and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution." -- Alec Guinness (Lawrence of Arabia)

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Dark Blood, River Phoenix's final film

Postby MovieWes » Tue Feb 26, 2013 7:50 pm

Is it possible that we could see some Oscar history this year? James Dean received 2 posthumous Oscar nominations, but they were both within 2 years of his death. Would the Academy even care about nominating an actor 20 years after his death? It's not as if they would ever have another opportunity to honor River Phoenix...

River Phoenix's final film, 'Dark Blood,' finally comes to screen

Nearly 20 years after the death of River Phoenix, the actor's final film, "Dark Blood," screened before an international audience last week at the Berlin International Film Festival. Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the film's tumultuous two-decade journey to completion is the fact that Dutch director George Sluizer, now 80, was able to finish it at all.

"Dark Blood," which began production in 1993, survived not only the loss of its leading actor, who died of an accidental drug overdose at age 23 outside a West Hollywood nightclub, but also the near-destruction of the original footage and a life-threatening ailment that struck its director.

The film hasn't come out completely unscathed — Sluizer had to restructure the story and add narration to account for missing scenes — and the precise ownership status of the original footage remains murky. But Sluizer has succeeded in giving "Dark Blood" form.

"I did my best to keep all the creative work which everybody had done, cast and crew," the filmmaker said by phone from Amsterdam, where his company, Sluizer Films, is based. (His official residence is in France.) "The only thing I was doing was to save it the best I could and put it together so that at least it was something watchable."

A psychological thriller set in the Utah desert, "Dark Blood" tells the story of a Hollywood couple, played by Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis, whose second honeymoon goes awry when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, forcing them to seek refuge at the shack of a disaffected young widower (Phoenix).

At the time of filming, Sluizer was coming off "The Vanishing," a modest hit, and Phoenix was a rising talent in Hollywood, having starred in such films as "Running on Empty," for which he earned an Academy Award nomination in 1989, and "My Own Private Idaho." He was Sluizer's first choice for the role of Boy in "Dark Blood," and the director enjoyed working with him.

"It's an old word, the word 'polite,' but he was a polite young man and had respect for people who were older than he was," Sluizer said.

"I was aware that [Phoenix] used drugs or had used drugs," Sluizer added. "He could have a joint or something when he came to see me," the director recalled, but it didn't affect production during six weeks of shooting in Utah.

British executive producer Nik Powell was also on location in Utah. "The chemistry between the cast members was very good," he said by phone from Berlin, though he added that Sluizer and Davis' personalities clashed at times. Phoenix, Powell said, was "a very sort of healing, inclusive person."

The cast and crew moved on for two weeks of filming in Los Angeles, a place Phoenix called "the bad, bad town," Sluizer said. "I would say that he feared [Los Angeles] in a way, because he knew that would mean nightclubs, drugs, friends."

At the time of Phoenix's death on Oct. 31, 1993, the production had completed one day of shooting in Los Angeles.

"It was a real shock," Sluizer said. "Obviously you have to go on, but I felt like I'm not sure I care about making films anymore, with actors dying under me. I was obviously very sad, and to a certain extent underneath the terrible sadness of losing … a young, kind of a son-friend … I also was, in a way, angry that we lost the movie."

Production was shut down with about 75% of the film in the can. Alternatives such as recasting Phoenix's role or salvaging the film with special effects were deemed unfeasible. The insurance company backing the film, CNA International Reinsurance, paid out $5.7 million under its policy. "When the insurers paid out the insurance money," Powell said, "they took over the rights and the materials to the film."

The footage ended up in storage in Los Angeles, and CNA sued Phoenix's estate for breach of contract. Sluizer said he contacted the claims adjuster, Graham Hill International, about acquiring the footage, but the lawsuit precluded the possibility. The case was dismissed in 1997, and in 1999 Sluizer learned the footage was to be destroyed.

Before that could happen, Sluizer had the film removed from the storage facility, he said, with the cooperation of the claims adjuster. (Sluizer said the adjuster initially offered him a key to the facility, but when it couldn't be located, Sluizer and his associates had to break a lock open. The undertaking was otherwise without incident, he said.)

"I call it saving, not stealing," Sluizer said. "Morally, I was saving important material. If you go to the Guggenheim and it's on fire and you save a painting, you're not stealing a painting — you're saving it."

Sluizer added that he was never contacted by the studio (New Line Cinema, now part of Warner Bros.), the insurers (since acquired by Tawa PLC, a specialized investor in the insurance industry) or the authorities after obtaining the footage.
"Young men make wars and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution." -- Alec Guinness (Lawrence of Arabia)

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