In 1993, 23-year-old River Phoenix died in front of the Viper Room, a nightclub in Hollywood, with cocaine and heroin in his system. At the time, he was in the middle of filming his last movie, Dark Blood. Twenty years later, Dark Blood will finally premiere at the Miami International Film Festival.
Director George Sluizer almost didn't finish the film. At the time when River died, he had shot about 80 percent of the movie, "but it is not continuous, it is so many little pieces here and there." River's family would not cooperate in completing the film. And then there was just the shock of River's death. So the film sat untouched for years. Then, George Sluizer got a shock of his own that finally pushed him to finish the movie.
Sluizer suffered an aneurysm and was told he would die soon. "I said, well I want to finish the film and to leave not a garbage bag of film, but something decent. And that's what I did in 2011, and the post-production until today." He ended up narrating the missing scenes with River himself in a voice-over, a solution one film critic called "simple but surprisingly effective." (The film made its European premiere at the Dutch Film Festival in September.)
Dark Blood is about a young widower (Phoenix) living on a nuclear testing site. A traveling couple (Judy Davis and Jonathan Pryce) gets stranded near him, and he tries to keep them from leaving.
And now, for the first time in about 20 years, we'll see a "new" film starring River Phoenix, frozen in time, forever 23 years old. For those of us who grew up watching his films, this will be strange and wonderful. River was always gorgeous, magnetic -- you just couldn't take your eyes off of him.
I think it'll hurt a little to watch Dark Blood, too. River died so young, and we can only imagine what he might have done with his life as he grew older. He was also a musician, a passionate activist. There was just so much potential wrapped up in that boy. Why was he taking both heroin and cocaine -- what demons was he chasing? Was it all too much for him, or was he just experimenting? It's been so long, I've forgotten all the theories and gossip. All I remember now is that he died far too young, in a completely unnecessary way that also felt strangely almost inevitable.
It will also be unsettling to watch someone frozen at 23 while the rest of us grew older. George Sluizer has posted a scene from the movie on YouTube. You couldn't pay me to be 23 again, but there's still something painful about watching River at that age and remembering that I was that fresh-faced once, too. For those who didn't grow up watching River, Dark Blood will give you a glimpse of his dark beauty and intensity.
Are you familiar with any of River Phoenix's films?
Image via George Sluizer/YouTube