The young man invited the two city slickers into the cave, his temple of salvation where he intends to wait out the end of the world. While the older man remains restless and disinterested with the stranger, his wife seems fascinated with the underground world that he has built with his own two hands. Having grown tired of the American dream and the promise of a better tomorrow, she senses something in this lonely soul that she has been craving for as long as she can remember: freedom. Could this nomad save her from the banality of her own life? Sometime later, he brings her back to his sacred place, where he continues with his prophecies about a new Eden that will follow the coming apocalypse, the two of them bearing children together that will repopulate the human race long after mankind has been consumed by its own inevitable destruction. Despite his insistence that it was fate that has brought them together, for a moment she feels seduced by the promise of the life he has offered, before finally coming to her senses and running from the tomb.

As the director announced that filming had come to an end for the day, both cast and crew began to disperse, with twenty-three-year-old River Phoenix, who had been cast in the role of the mysterious recluse, leaving the set of the low-budget drama for what would prove to be the last time. Barely six hours later, the young actor would be dead, having become the latest celebrity to succumb to the temptations of the entertainment industry. His premature death would send a shockwave through Hollywood as the rising star, known for his strong political beliefs and clean lifestyle, would hardly seem like the kind of person to overdose on a deadly cocktail of drugs outside a Los Angeles nightclub, and yet in the early hours of Halloween 1993, Phoenix took his last breath.

Principal photography on Dark Blood, a character study of paranoia and isolation from Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer, had relocated from the deserts of Utah to a studio in California to shoot the screenplay’s interior scenes, but the director had only managed a single day of shooting before the death of his leading man effectively brought everything to a standstill. With the producers and insurance company discussing the reality they now faced, Sluizer was in mourning for the loss of his friend. Media around the world began to portray Phoenix as both a modern day James Dean, and yet another former child star who had self-destructed through alcohol and drug abuse. As newspaper and magazine articles speculated on how such an intelligent individual could have allowed himself to become engulfed by the sleazy underbelly of Tinseltown, production on the final film of River Phoenix would be shut down, and the footage buried deep inside a Los Angeles warehouse.

With Dark Blood having been shelved and the press eager for statements from those close to the actor, everyone associated with the movie soon retreated from the public eye, Sluizer returning to his home in the Netherlands in order to mourn in private. With Peter Bogdanovich’s The Thing Called Love released just two months earlier, and Sam Shepard’s western Silent Tongue languishing in distribution hell, very little attention was given by the tabloids towards a movie that had been abandoned and would most likely never see the light of day. ‘At first I felt a lot of sadness,’ recalled Sluizer to French magazine L’Écran Fantastique in 2011. ‘I don’t want to exaggerate anything, but he had become like my son. During pre-production, he came to my hotel to see me and had written songs for me. He was not content to just be an actor. We were close. Someone dear was taken from me. After a while, I was also furious. I’d lost a friend but I’d also lost a film.’

Dark Blood had intended to serve as a stepping stone, as the actor attempted the transition from teen heartthrob roles to that of an adult lead. Following a variety of television appearances, Phoenix had made his feature debut at the age of fifteen in the Joe Dante fantasy Explorers, but it would be the coming-of-age drama Stand by Me, released the following year, that would first bring him critical acclaim. This soon led to an Academy Award-nominated performance in Running on Empty, and a cameo as a young Harrison Ford in the summer blockbuster Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but as the decade came to an end he desperately searched for projects that would allow him to grow as an artist. While the offbeat comedies I Love You to Death and Dogfight would do little to advance his career, in 1991 he took on the role of a narcoleptic hustler in Gus Van Sant’s revered My Own Private Idaho.

Brandon Lee

The drive from the studio to his hotel on La Cienega Boulevard allowed him to revel in one benefit of being a movie star, and as Phoenix stepped out of the limousine and through the front doors of the Hotel Nikko he looked like Hollywood royalty. As he entered his suite on the third floor he was greeted by two of his younger siblings, and after copious amounts of champagne and room service they made their way into the heart of the city. The following morning, newspaper headlines reported his death to the world. Just six months earlier another rising star had passed away, leaving an industry in mourning. Twenty-eight-year-old Brandon Lee, son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, had been stuck by a projectile on the set of the revenge fantasy The Crow, and died twelve hours later on the operating table of an Emergency Room, and now once again another life and career had come to a tragic end.

While Hollywood was synonymous with drug abuse, it was arguably Phoenix’s ventures into the world of music that first introduced him to both heroin and cocaine. The latter had thrived during the excessive eighties, but the grunge scene of the new decade had brought back heroin in a new and chic way. Phoenix had become friends with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and often performed on the local club scene with his own group, Aleka’s Attic. His girlfriend, The Thing Called Love co-star Samantha Mathis, was reluctant to enter the Viper Room that night, hoping instead that they could resign themselves to an early evening, but no sooner had Phoenix met up with his rock ‘n’ roll friends, drugs were passed around and his behaviour became more erratic.

Ever since the birth of the Hollywood star, the entertainment industry has destroyed the lives of child actors, resulting in drug addiction, depression, and struggles with the law. Following her breakthrough performance at the age of seven in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Drew Barrymore was thrust into the limelight and the world of alcohol and cocaine, which would consume her life over the following decade. The late eighties also saw regular co-stars Corey Haim and Corey Feldman both struggling with the evils of success, while the early nineties almost destroyed Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin. River Phoenix would be the latest former child actor to embrace the darker side of fame and fortune, and while Barrymore would eventually overcome her addictions, the death of Phoenix served as a wake-up call to other young celebrities that success can come with a price.

But how could it have happened to someone who was celebrated for their clean-living lifestyle? Even Phoenix was aware that the City of Angels destroyed as many dreams as it created. ‘It’s like feeling like the invisible man,’ he once claimed. ‘You start disintegrating, you can’t see yourself, and you feel like you’re being absorbed into the big blob of glitter.’ In just a few short years he had risen from the world of television to become one of the most respected actors of his generation, sharing the screen with such legends as Sidney Poitier, and being showered with accolades from the very industry that would destroy him. Even as he completed work on Dark Blood, Phoenix was preparing to work alongside Tom Cruise on the highly-anticipated Interview with the Vampire. He had resisted the temptation of taking on teen roles in favour of low-key independent projects like Silent Tongue, and as a result he was admired by his peers and idolised by his fans.

And yet despite his increasing success, in reality he had grown tired of Hollywood and instead wanted to indulge in his true passion of music. A few years earlier, he had formed his own group alongside his sister, Rain, and as a result of his growing drug use his relationship with actress Martha Plimpton would come to an end. ‘He’s already being made into a martyr,’ Plimpton would tell Esquire a few months after his passing. ‘He’s become a metaphor for a fallen angel, a messiah. He wasn’t. He was just a boy, a very good-hearted boy who was very fucked-up, and had no idea how to implement his good intentions. I don’t want to be confronted by his death. I think it’s right that I’m angry about it, angry at the people who helped him stay sick, and angry at River.’

Judy Davis, River Phoenix, and Jonathan Pryce

Located close to the Capitol Reef National Park and Route 24 is the small, forgotten town of Torrey. With a population of less than two hundred, the community lies tucked away among the mountain desert of Utah, its existence ignored by commuters that make their way towards the state’s more prominent landscapes. River Phoenix was as far from the temptations of Los Angeles as one could get, and as he walked through the barren wilderness, sharing carefree conversations with George Sluizer, his addictions were unable to take hold of him. In just a few short days this area would be besieged with dozens of actors and crewmembers, each one scurrying in preparation for the coming film shoot, but for the moment the two enjoyed the relative peace and quiet. Sluizer had grown concerned for his young star’s health and wellbeing as he watched Phoenix struggle with his perpetual substance abuse, and in an effort to distance the actor from the dealers that surrounded him like parasites, he suggested the two arrive in the town earlier than anticipated in order to disconnect from the pressures of Hollywood and its vices. Phoenix was already feeling the benefit of this natural detox, and as others began to reach the location, he was ready to commence work on his most challenging role to date.

A documentarian by trade, Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer was first introduce to international audiences in the late eighties with his disturbing thriller Spoorloos, before making his Hollywood debut with its English-language remake a few years later. The acclaim that he had garnered with the original 1988 motion picture had led to a courting from major studios, thus allowing the freedom to choose his next project. Having received a letter from a struggling screenwriter called Jim Barton, the two met in London and Sluizer was presented with the first draft of Dark Blood. Over the next few months they developed the concept together, and soon the story began to take shape. Adopting the psychotic love triangle of Phillip Noyce’s Dead Calm, and combining it with the fear of the wilderness that had been explored in both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and DeliveranceDark Blood was scripted as a claustrophobic character piece, in which the loneliness and despair of a man who has lost the love of his life causes him to take desperate measures to keep himself from being alone.

Sluizer would first come to the project when produce JoAnne Sellar opted to follow up the desert horror film Dust Devil with another feature set in the American wilderness. As Sluizer completed work on The Vanishing for 20th Century Fox, other studios were eager to recreate the success of his breakthrough picture. His talent for balancing character and tension with Spoorloos made him an ideal candidate for Dark Blood. The film would be developed through Scala Productions, the latest business enterprise conceived by Palace Pictures masterminds Nik Powell and Stephen Woolley. ‘The script was set in south-west America, and at that point it was going to be a U.S. production, so it made sense for me to come to L.A., raise the finance, set up the production, and put the cast together, rather than trying to do it all from England,’ explained Sellar to Focus Features. ‘Palace Pictures had offices in L.A., so I suggested I went over, and they were fine. And for me it was just like changing offices. So I moved to the U.S., and I spent about a year putting it all together.’

Financed in participation with New Line Cinema, the studio first established with A Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger, the project finally came together in May 1992 when Sellar searched for investors in France at the Cannes Film Festival. River Phoenix turned twenty-three shortly before making his way to the deserts of Utah. ‘I wanted him to breathe the Utah air, to readjust, and let him remember the relationship we had built,’ recalled Sluizer. Due to being the primary breadwinner of a large family, Phoenix was beginning to struggle with the financial burden of being responsible for his parents’ and siblings’ wellbeing, and this would play a factor in his need to distract himself with substances. ‘River was my first choice. I had seen most of his films and thought he would fit the part of Boy,’ insisted the director. ‘River was interested in doing different parts, not repeating in all the films the same image of himself. I think he saw Dark Blood as a challenge.’

Dark Blood is the story of heartbreak, sexual repression, and the city versus the wilderness, as a couple attempt to salvage their failing marriage while the man, struggling actor Harry Fletcher, studies a screenplay in preparation for a potential project. They have escaped from the hustle and bustle of city life in order to enjoy their second honeymoon, and decide to spend their first night in a secluded motel. While Harry watches over the mechanic that works on his car, his wife, the heavy-drinking Buffy, drowns her sorrows. The following morning they continue on their journey but resentment hangs in the air between them. Harry was once a modestly successful actor, while Buffy had proved a popular draw as a Vegas showgirl, but they were both now approaching middle-age with their glory days long behind them. Tensions increase when their car breaks down in the middle of the desert and they fail to find a signal with their telephone. Buffy blames her husband for their situation, and with no water or food she grows increasingly frustrated. As night falls she sees something in the distance, a faint glowing light, but Harry dismisses it as nothing. Determined to find salvation, she ventures into the darkness, braving the hostile terrain until she finally stumbles upon a farmhouse hidden from the outside world.

George Sluizer and River Phoenix

The meeting between Buffy and a young widowed stranger, identified in the screenplay merely as Boy, immediately highlights the difference between the spoiled and pampered Buffy, born and raised in a city, and the isolated Boy, who claims to be one-eighth ‘Hopi Indian,’ with ‘dark blood in my veins.’ Reluctantly, he drives Buffy back to her car to rescue Harry, and immediately berates the man for not accompanying his wife on her journey. While there would be animosity between Harry and Boy, behind the scenes a bond developed between the two actors. River Phoenix had been Sluizer’s first choice for the young recluse, while the role of the uptight Harry would go to Welsh thespian Jonathan Pryce. ‘It was a horrible experience even before River died,’ claimed Pryce in 2015. ‘I adored him, but other factors on the production made me never want to act again.’ Boy would bring the two back to his home with promise of repairing their vehicle, and for a moment they find peace in the desert. Boy expresses his reservations at interacting with the world around him, but is grateful for finally having company on the farm. Harry is desperate to return to civilisation, but Buffy feels drawn to the young man.

By the time Dark Blood entered development in early 1993, Phoenix had become one of the most respected actors of the era, having shared a similar sensibility to fellow heartthrob Johnny Depp for selecting unusual projects that lacked commercial appeal. Despite having already portrayed a grief-stricken widower in Silent Tongue, he would agree to take on the part of Boy, his first portrayal of an antagonist and one that threatened to alienate his devoted teenage fans. And while his growing drug use had gradually become common knowledge within the film industry, Sluizer was convinced that Phoenix was the right actor for the role. ‘I knew of his drug habit,’ he would later admit. ‘The actors in Hollywood at the top level all are, I would say, drug addicts in some way or another. I worked with Kiefer Sutherland; he was a whisky addict, two bottles a day. He wanted to compete with me; ‘You drink one bottle, I drink one bottle, let’s see if you’re drunk.’ I never on set noticed that he had drunk anything, in the morning he was sober.’

Once photography was underway, tension began to grown on set, and despite the initial concerns that Sluizer had for Phoenix, it would be one of his co-stars who would prove to be the most troublesome. Fifteen years older than the film’s star, Australian-born Judy Davis had recently been nominated for an Academy Award for her work with Woody Allen, but from the moment she arrived on location she took an instant dislike to both the screenplay and director. ‘Judy Davis wasn’t so pleasant to work with,’ Sluizer would tell Midnight Movie Reviews. ‘In the movie, she and River fall in love, but offscreen they did not get along very well. And neither did I. She was a very good actress, but a tough lady. She wasn’t rude, but sometimes disrespectful. For example, when she wasn’t in front of the camera, she would talk too quietly for River to hear. He would ask her to speak up, but she didn’t want to.’

While Davis may have caused issues for Phoenix during their scenes together, it would be Sluizer that was the main target of her hostility. ‘It’s important to know what your strengths are. I absolutely believe in my intuition; I think that’s a great asset to an actor,’ she would tell Premiere soon after production came to an end. ‘The weakness to my personality are impatience and sometimes intolerance, which came with this guy George. I was very quickly, utterly, intolerant of him. I decided that he was dangerous and kept away from him.’ Due to her negative opinion towards the director, she would often second-guess his instructions while also criticising Barton’s screenplay. Phoenix would attempt to keep the peace between the two, but her lack of respect would result in her dismissing him as a frat boy.

The situation would become so unbearable that one of their London-based producers, Nik Powell, would fly out to the location in Utah to try and employ some diplomacy before the shoot fell even further behind schedule. ‘It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,’ Powell told Entertainment Weekly. ‘River was increasingly helpful in bringing everybody together. He was full of warmth, incredibly professional, knew what he was trying to achieve, and how to work with a director. He was a major positive force.’ Regarding the difficulties between Sluizer and his actress, Powell would later explain to the Guardian, ‘It was a clash of temperaments between George Sluizer and Judy. There’s nothing you can do. You just try to calm them both down, give them perspective. River’s fans won’t like me for saying this, but I think it’s Judy’s performance which is phenomenal and full of energy. Maybe from the clash of temperaments came that performance.’

Witness the Power of the Atomic Bomb

The town was eerily quiet. It was a quant slice of small-town Americana with traditional white-picket fences, swing-sets in the backyard, and pristine sidewalks that circled through each of its deserted streets. The trees seemed absent of wildlife, and even the distant songs of birds could not be heard. As sunlight bid farewell to the day and the moon cast a faint glow overhead, a group of individuals congregated together in a nearby bunker to watch on in anticipation for the night’s proceedings. Suddenly the silence was shattered and the darkness violently disturbed as an explosion ruptured through the area, its shockwaves tearing through the streets and houses of the town as if they were made of little more than paper. As the buildings were reduced to twisted and deformed rubble, a large fiery mushroom cloud filled the night sky, its marvel witnessed from a hundred miles away. As the instant blast subsided and the cloud stood proudly above them, the men applauded enthusiastically, revelling in the unimaginable destruction that they had just witnessed. Little remained of the town, and had anyone dared to venture through its remains the following morning, radiation poisoning would have claimed their life soon enough.

The explosions of atomic bombs above the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 may have marked a major turning point in the Second World War, but it would also inspire both the United States and Soviet Union to pursue nuclear testing long after victory was declared. These would first commence on American soil in the deserts of Nevada during the early fifties, but its true effects were not felt for several decades. ‘Radioactive fall-out from the world’s nuclear weapons tests during the Cold War has killed eleven-thousand Americans with cancer,’ reported New Scientist in 2002. ‘The report, prepared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) for Congress, is the first attempt to estimate the total number of cancers caused by the atmospheric testing programme. Between 1951 and 1963, three-hundred-and-ninety nuclear bombs were exploded above the ground; two-hundred-and-five by the U.S., a hundred-and-sixty by the former Soviet Union, twenty-one by Britain, and four by France. The fall-out from these explosions circulated the globe and exposed the world’s population to radioactivity.’

As the Boy and his house guests arrive at a nearby town for supplies, he explains to the travellers how he had come to be alone. For many years, the nearby desert was a testing site for atomic weapons, and as the radiation spread out among the local population, future generations became susceptible to various forms of cancer. One of those who would fall ill and pass away as a result of tests conducted generations ago was his wife. Since her death, he had withdrawn from the world and remained a recluse. The United States government had given little thought to the environmental repercussions as it ran tests in an attempt to win the Cold War, and as a result thousands of Americans have suffered from radiation-related illness. Unable to cope with the grief of her loss, Boy turned his back on the human race and, like many Americans who lived in fear of a nuclear apocalypse, had dedicated his life to building a bomb shelter where he could survive the end of the world. Boy was unlike any other character that River Phoenix had portrayed, but his unorthodox upbringing would help him sympathise with the troubled young man.

A quarter of a century before River Phoenix stepped foot in Torrey, a young woman turned her back on a failing marriage and a frustrating conservative life in search of meaning. Arlyn Dunetz came from a conventional American family, born and raised in the Bronx, and worked a dead-end job as a secretary in Manhattan. The world around her was changing and she wanted to change with it. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in the spring of 1968 were the latest acts of violence for a generation marred by war and government conspiracies, and as distrust and paranoia in their leaders grew, the youth of the country were turning their backs on families and careers to embrace the alternative counterculture. ‘At eighteen I was just a clone, totally unconscious,’ recalled Arlyn. ‘I didn’t know the air was polluted and I didn’t care. I just went to work and thought that everything the government told me was right and true. It took some time before I was awakened.’ She had no clear idea of what path she wanted to take, and so decided to hitch her way to a new life.

During one of these excursions she was offered a ride by a charming young bum who rejected capitalism for liberation. John Bottom had also walked from a marriage and worked odd-jobs while he travelled the highways with his guitar. ‘I was hitchhiking on Santa Monica and John picked us up,’ she later explained. ‘He invited us to his place, and we went two nights later. We talked and talked ‘til early morning, and we just knew we had similar desires.’ With both rejecting the traditional lifestyle, they joined thousands of other young bohemians that journeyed across America in search of love and enlightenment. Taking shelter anywhere they could, their travels eventually brought them to the small Oregon city of Madras, where they were able to negotiate their way onto a commune. Despite the local farmhands expressing confusion over the travellers’ way of life, they were accepted by its owner and often spent their hours picking fruit on the land.

Children of God

The birth of their first child would take place in the summer of 1970. Having immersed themselves in the writings of European author Hermann Hesse, specifically 1922’s Siddhartha, they named their son after the novel’s river of life, and with a family to now support, John began searching for a purpose. This was how they would find their way to the Children of God. With many young men and women frustrated and disillusioned with their government and the American dream, religious cults seemed like a promising alternative to capitalism and consumerism. Rejecting the mainstream, they were promised purity, meaning, and reward in their service to God. In this particular religion, God was known as David Berg. The son of evangelists, Berg claimed that he wanted to serve as a missionary, and through his misinterpretations of Christianity, he was convinced that he had a divine purpose in the world. Initially referred to as Teens for Christ, by the dawn of the seventies the Children of God was drawing attention from the hippie counterculture. But following a dream in which he witnessed an apocalypse laying waste to the United States, he instructed his followers to abandon their homeland and establish new colonies around Europe, Australia, and Latin America. It would be here that John and his family began their new life.

The passion for music that would inspire River Phoenix to form Aleka’s Attic was first cultivated during his childhood with Children of God. ‘From the earliest days of Teens for Christ, music had been a central aspect of family life and witness. Almost every colony had disciples who played guitar and sang on the street as part of the witnessing strategy,’ wrote James Chancellor in Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God. ‘Disciples have written hundreds of songs of protest, praise, and proclamation. By 1974, several C.O.G. bands had achieved wide public acceptance. Les Enfants de Dieu, the French performance group, recorded a top-selling song in 1974. For several months, they appeared regularly on national television. Other groups in Latin America achieved a similar level of success.’ By the mid-seventies, John and Arlyn had produced three more children, and with no financial support provided by their leaders, River and his sister, Rain, began performing on the streets of Venezuela. ‘It was a great stepping stone,’ claimed Phoenix. ‘I learned to play guitar there – my sister, Rain, and I got interested in performing.’

The close-knit brotherhood of the Children of God began to fracture, however, when rumours and allegations of sexual abuse against children spread across the cult, prompting many followers to abandon their new lives and walk from the teachings of Berg. ‘I think my parents thought they’d found a community that shared their ideals,’ declared River’s younger brother, Joaquin Phoenix. ‘Cults rarely advertise themselves as such. It’s usually someone saying, ‘We’re likeminded people. This is a community.’ But I think the moment my parents realised there was something more to it, they got out.’ As the truth began to emerge, many of the group’s most devoted believers decided to return home and renounce their faith. ‘Returning to the United States after a seven-year absence brought tremendous culture shock,’ claimed Berg’s daughter, Linda. ‘We had left the country when the counterculture and notions of protests were still present, though fading; and we had left under the aegis of [Berg]’s endtime warnings of a doomed nation. How were we to survive, let alone live, even for a while, in a society we had so bitterly rejected?’

As other families struggled to return to the United States, John and Arlyn embarked on their own journey home. ‘We met this doctor who used to be a pop star in Spain,’ explained River. ‘He had a recording studio in Orlando, Florida, and he told us we could come out whenever we wanted. We had no money, so a priest got us on this old Tonka freighter that carried Tonka toys. We were stowaways. The crew discovered us halfway home – my mom was pregnant, there were four kids. They threw a big birthday party for my brother, gave us all these damaged Tonka toys. It was a blast!’ The revelation that the Children of God were in truth a sinister organisation was an awakening shared by thousands of others. ‘We left because they started advocating child-adult sex, and that was too far for my father, so we escaped,’ recalled former member Rose McGowan, who would turn to acting in the early nineties. In an interview with People, she recalled how her family escaped from the cult. ‘We had to leave on the sly. My dad, [stepbrother] Nat, [stepsister] Daisy, and I escaped with my dad’s other wife in the middle of the night. I remember running through a cornfield in thunder and lightning, holding my dad’s hand, and running as fast as I could to keep up with him.’

The birth of their fifth child, Summer, shortly before Christmas 1978 marked the start of a new life, and as a symbolic gesture of this, John Bottom rechristened his family Phoenix, in honour of the mythological bird that represented rebirth. But the shadow of the Children of God would continue to haunt them. ‘My parents have never been blind followers,’ said Joaquin. ‘In fact, they recognised that it was shifting and the ideas behind it weren’t what they wanted, so they left. The awful stuff I’ve heard about the group in the eighties, that wasn’t our experience. We were trying to figure out how to make alternative societies, and that a lot of them fell to the same mistakes that our larger society has made, in which people’s egos and greed took over. I think that’s what happened to that community.’ This concept of an alternative society is at the heart of the character of Boy, a young man who, much like John and Arlyn, rejected conventional life in favour of a rural existence, cut off from mainstream civilisation. And it was this unorthodox upbringing that would help River to understand the story of Dark Blood, and his role within it.

Joaquin, Arlyn, and River Phoenix

Her heart skips a beat and her blood runs cold. Buffy stops dead in her tracks at the sight of the familiar image. As Boy manipulates her husband into believing that his own truck has ceased to run, she struggles to comprehend how what she is seeing could possibly be true. Harry marches through the door, exasperated that they are stranded in the middle of nowhere, only to see the fear in her eyes. Until this moment she seemed oddly attracted to the young man. She had watched in interest as his muscles glistened with sweat, each thrust of the axe through the firewood offering her a hint of sexual arousal, but all that desire had evaporated in a single moment. She gestures over to the far wall and Harry follows her gaze. How could it be? ‘A ghost from the past,’ she declared. He stepped forward to gain a clearer viewer. There it was, as incomprehensible as it may seem, a photograph from her youth. The black-and-white image, captured during her showgirl days in Vegas, revealed Buffy in see-through attire, her breasts clearly visible from underneath. ‘Oh, this is too much,’ he groans, but as he attempts to remove the picture from the wall, Boy’s dog snarls and barks as a warning against his trespassing. Whatever promises Boy has made, Buffy and Harry now realise that their lives were in danger and that their only hope of survival is escape.

Despite the problematic relationship that had formed between River Phoenix and Judy Davis, his other co-star would remain supportive towards his leading man. Jonathan Pryce first gained international recognition for his performance in Terry Gilliam’s science fiction satire Brazil, and with this cult classic being among Phoenix’s favourite films, he was excited at the opportunity to work alongside the veteran actor. In fact, so accommodating was Pryce that he had arranged a meeting between Phoenix and Gilliam for their first week in Los Angeles, a favour that Phoenix felt overwhelmed by. Any issues that Davis may have had were not shared by Pryce, who was more than willing to take the young actor under his wing. ‘River was absolutely delightful,’ he would tell the Telegraph two decades later. ‘I’d spend all day with him, and then we and his friends would have dinner every night, because it was so isolated out there. He had never done theatre, so he loved to hear those stories. I can’t believe my daughter is the same age as he was. It was an old head on young shoulders.’

Phoenix had become all too aware of the difficulties that he faced in taking the step from teen roles to that of a respected adult actor, and even if he did intend on retiring in the foreseeable future, he hoped to leave behind a worthwhile legacy, and so he was under enormous pressure to deliver a performance in Dark Blood that would prove his worth as a leading man. With his recent roles having included a naïve computer hacker and rising country star, Jim Barton’s script had offered him something more substantial and challenging, but this had caused the actor to question his own talents. Fearing that he would struggle with certain dialogue, he approached Sluizer to request reducing his lines but was overruled, with the director feeling that his monologues were integral to the story.

Yet despite his own insecurities, his performance and commitment to the role impressed those around him. He had a childlike enthusiasm and a vulnerability that many found endearing. ‘He was very animated and off-the-wall. And prone to do almost anything; he was skittish, like a hyperactive kid. One minute he would be sitting there quietly, the next he’d be jumping up and doing slightly embarrassing things,’ recalled producer Stephen Woolley. ‘It was like being in the presence of a kid. When he did silly things, you wanted to say, ‘Don’t do that,’ or, ‘Be careful.’ River was gifted, with phenomenal looks, and every casting director and producer had him in mind for any film where the pretty boy image was the main ingredient. But he was determined to go against that grain. His philosophy was movie actor, not movie star.’

Phoenix had decided to play against type by accepting the role of Boy, a lonely young man who goes to drastic lengths to keep two strangers from leaving his home, a deception which would ultimately cost him his life. Brandishing the axe in self-defence, Harry finally takes a stand against their oppressor, and during the struggle accidentally strikes a blow against Boy’s skull. Horrified that his dog was also killed in the attack, Boy drops to his knees and is carried away by his Native American friends, where he dies peacefully in his bed as Buffy takes a seat beside him. ‘The final scene, which paints the mentally-disturbed Boy as strangely noble, and makes Harry a murdering coward, refuses to give easy answers,’ noted Brad Sykes in Terror in the Desert: Dark Cinema of the American Southwest. ‘Though undeniably cathartic, the lingering effect of their encounter with Boy are left intentionally ambiguous. The film’s final shot, which brings the entire narrative full-circle, watches stoically from the backseat as Harry and Buffy drive away from Boy’s burning residence.’

Samantha Mathis and River Phoenix

During his time on location in Utah, Phoenix was accompanied by his girlfriend, actress Samantha Mathis, and his personal assistant, Abby Rude. The experience of removing himself from the Hollywood scene had resulted in a notable improvement in his health, but tensions on set had begun to take their toll on him. Davis had endured difficult relationships with both Phoenix and Sluizer, while feeling that the director had been too demanding of his star. ‘In my opinion, that was made more difficult by the director constantly telling him how he should play it,’ claimed Davis. ‘Whether he should be angrier, loonier, whatever. It was a difficult part because it could so easily be absurd. He had most of the dialogue in the film, huge speeches; he kept trying to cut his lines down. Any changes freaked the director out. River said to me one day, ‘Maybe I should give up acting.’

Whether there is any truth in Davis’ claims remains unclear, but Sluizer remains adamant that there was nothing but respect between himself and Phoenix. ‘There was never any tension whatsoever between River Phoenix and me,’ he insisted during a screening in 2012. ‘He was friendly, professional, and we had a pleasant time working together. As for Judy, she was…I’m looking for a friendlier word here…a bitch! Thankfully, we had Jonathan Pryce on the set, who was wise, or at least mature enough, not to get pulled into the fighting. At one point when his character had to yell and curse at her, Judy objected to that. I mean, this was typical. She had read it in the script and had accepted it, but once we were shooting she started to make a fuss, saying she didn’t want to be spoken to in such a way. At which point Jonathan said, ‘Ahh, come on, Judy, let’s keep this in. I only accepted this role because I could act mean to you!’ And that settled it. I won’t allow anyone to speak against her talent as an actress, but if we’re talking about her qualities as a human, I advise everyone to keep away from her.’

One urban legend that surrounds Dark Blood is that on one occasion Phoenix told Pryce that, ‘Someone’s going to die in this film.’ Whether or not this was true could only be answered by Pryce, but as location shooting came to an end, the production was relocated back to Los Angeles in order to film interior scenes on the studio lot. For this first day of work in a more controlled environment, Sluizer filmed the sequence in which Boy reveals his bomb shelter to Harry and Buffy. ‘The scene that we were doing on Saturday, we were both supposed to be on peyote,’ recalled Davis. ‘I had a conversation with him a few weeks before, saying that I wouldn’t take peyote just to see what it’s like in order to play the scene. I recall River agreeing with me about that. We didn’t work on Friday. We had just come back to L.A. I think he’d driven out with all his friends and they’d let their hair down. He took, I think, Valium to bring himself down, and that’s where the problems started.’

It was clear to everyone on set that during the filming of the scene Phoenix was under the influence of some kind of substance. He struggled with his coordination and was often found slouched in his chair. ‘The last day he was high. He’d definitely taken something the day before,’ insisted Sluizer twenty years later. ‘You could tell from the way he walked, he couldn’t always judge distances, like not being able to tell where the wall was. He was distant and staring into space in the make-up chair.’ The experience of shooting in the desert had been incredibly gruelling for all involved, with both the cast and crew desperate to put the film behind them. ‘It was a horrible experience, even before River Phoenix died,’ admitted Pryce. ‘I adored him, but other factors on the production made me never want to act again.’

Filming for the day came to an end at approximately 6pm and after remaining on set for a further hour, Phoenix made his way from the studio to Room 328 at Hotel Nikko, where the producers had booked suites for the entire production. Meeting up with his siblings, Rain and Joaquin, the Phoenix ensemble were soon accompanied by Mathis. The two first became close when they co-starred in the romantic drama The Thing Called Love, and the romance had continued long after shooting had wrapped. Later in the evening, Abby Rude and her husband joined the celebration. By the time Sluizer returned to the hotel, his young star was heading out for the evening. This would be the last time that he would see River Phoenix alive. ‘It was a terrible, terrible tragedy,’ said JoAnne Sellar. ‘He was such a lovely human being.’ If Phoenix did indeed tell Pryce that someone would die, one can’t imagine that he believed he was talking about himself, but just a few hours after leaving the set of Dark Blood on 30 October, 1993, River Phoenix was dead.

River Phoenix and Judy Davis [scene recreation]

The two figures stood close together, the warm glow of the candlelight shining against their soft skin. They shared a moment of tenderness, two lost souls desperately searching for meaning in their lives, before the woman finally walks away, leaving the young man standing at the makeshift altar. George Sluizer announced the day had come to an end and the crew wasted no time in bringing down the studio lights, casting River Phoenix in near-darkness. Unbeknownst to all, the camera continued to roll, and the image it would capture sent a shiver down everyone’s spine. The actor stood alone, illuminated only by the candles behind, and as if in a trance he turned to face the camera and slowly stepped forward. He remained silent as his silhouette stood motionless, before the screen finally cut to black. This would be the last footage ever shot of River Phoenix. ‘When we saw the dailies, for ten seconds River was in front of the camera, just a silhouette lit by ambient light,’ described cinematographer Ed Lachman. ‘It was…eerie. People were crying. We knew that was the last we would see of River.’

With Halloween falling on a Sunday, costume parties were instead held on the Saturday evening, and as Phoenix and his ensemble left Hotel Nikko, their first stop would be a gathering at a house in the Hollywood Hills. ‘I saw him walk up a flight of stairs. It was almost like something you would see in Vertigo, because I saw there was something in his face. And I’d never met him – always wanted to meet him, always wanted to just have an encounter with him – and he was walking towards me and I kind of froze,’ recalled Leonardo DiCaprio, who was just twelve days shy of his nineteenth birthday when the two almost crossed paths at the Halloween party. ‘And then the crowd got in my way, and I looked back and he was gone. I walked back up the stairs and back down, and I was like, ‘Where did he go?’ And he was on his way to the Viper Room. It was almost as if – I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s this existential thing where I felt like…he disappeared in front of my very eyes, and the tragedy that I felt afterwards, of having lost this great influence, for me and all of my friends. The actor we all talked about.’

On the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Larrabee Street in the heart of West Hollywood lay a small venue that until recently locals had referred to as the Central. It had a long and vibrant history that could be traced back to the late forties when a former grocery store was renovated into a popular night spot called the Cotton Club. But in early 1993, Hollywood heartthrob Johnny Depp and his 21 Jump Street co-star Sal Jenco purchased the property as a means for their friends to hang out and perform together. And so the Viper Room was born. The venue’s grand opening took place on 14 August, 1993 with a performance from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and within weeks it became a regular haunt for young actors and rock stars. Among the locals were Married…with Children’s Christina Applegate and River Phoenix’s friend Keanu Reeves. ‘I can’t think of a cooler place to play in L.A. than the Viper Room,’ boasted Nancy Sinatra. ‘If my dad were still performing, he’d want to play an after-hours show there.’

River Phoenix arrived at the Viper Room shortly after midnight on the morning of 31 October with guitar in-hand to meet several of his musician friends. The main event was a performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Phoenix had hoped to join them onstage, but the inclusion of Depp, Jenco, and Ministry mastermind Al Jourgensen meant that his participation was no longer required. Taking his seat with Samantha Mathis and his brother, Joaquin, Phoenix continued to drink and discretely indulge in substances, but as the night progressed several of the patrons expressed concern over his erratic behaviour. Fearing that he needed a chaperone, Mathis telephoned Abby Rude for assistance. ‘Sam called and said she was really scared,’ recalled Rude. ‘She said River had just keeled over. We said we’d be right over to help.’ Having struggled to remain balanced, Phoenix had vomited before passing out in his seat, but at approximately 12:55am he came to and announced that he wanted to step outside. Five minutes later, he collapsed on the sidewalk.

Once the phone call was leaked to the media, it would be repeated hourly by the tabloids for what felt like an eternity. Joaquin Phoenix had turned his back on acting after appearing in the 1989 comedy Parenthood, but it was on Halloween 1993 when he gave his most infamous performance. ‘He’s having seizures on Sunset and Larrabee,’ he frantically explained to the 911 operator while watching helplessly as his older brother fought for his life. ‘Get over here please. You must get over here please!’ Those who passed by during these moments were unaware that the young man having convulsions by the side of the road was one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars. News soon reached the Viper Room that one of their guests had overdosed outside. ‘I got off the stage and went out the door, and the paramedics were working on this young man,’ described Depp. ‘I didn’t know at the time that it was River.’

Johnny Depp and River Phoenix

At 1:34am, the ambulance carrying Phoenix arrived at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre on Beverly Boulevard, by which point the patient showed very little sign of life. Despite opening his chest to massage his heart, they were unable to revive the twenty-three-year-old, and at 1:51am, almost an hour after his collapse, River Phoenix was pronounced dead. ‘I knew something was wrong that night, something I didn’t understand,’ admitted Mathis. ‘I didn’t see anyone doing drugs, but he was high in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. I was in way over my head.’ There would only be a few short hours before word of his death reached the media, and while Joaquin contacted his family, the producers of Dark Blood were soon notified of the tragedy. ‘River’s agent called me,’ said Sluizer. ‘I was sleeping and thought I was having a nightmare when I heard him say, ‘River’s dead!’ I didn’t really understand what was happening. I was called again at 6am to confirm that he had died.’ In a separate interview he would add, ‘I was in charge, so I informed the other two actors that River had passed away. It took everyone by surprise. You don’t expect someone that young to die.’

Just hours later, the news of his death made the headlines around the world. ‘The collapse and death of River Phoenix outside a Sunset Strip club early Sunday has stunned Hollywood,’ announced the New York Times. ‘The Los Angeles coroner’s office, which conducted the autopsy, said today it could not fix the cause of Mr. Phoenix’s death, and that the results of a toxicological analysis for drugs or alcohol would not be available for about six weeks.’ Two weeks later, the cause of death was revealed to be an ‘acute multiple-drug intoxication’ from both heroin and cocaine, a speedball concoction that had also claimed the life of fellow actor John Belushi a decade earlier. ‘River and I would talk about getting old, being in our fifties together, how it’d probably take us that long to get to work together,’ revealed Joaquin Phoenix, who finally returned to acting two years after his death. ‘There was something gorgeous about us being old together.’

While acting was the last thing on his mind following the fate of his brother, Joaquin was inspired to return to the industry by River’s belief and determination. ‘I think it was a period in my life – I started acting very young – as I became a teenager I wasn’t interested in the kind of roles that were available to teenagers at that time,’ he later explained. ‘And so I’d just grown quite disinterested in it, and I think that he just gave me a lot of confidence, and was just insistent that it was something that I was going to do. It was hard to deny it, because he seemed so certain. And I think it just gave me the confidence.’ Following his celebrated appearance in To Die For, in which he would work with My Own Private Idaho director Gus Van Sant, Joaquin Phoenix received an Academy Award nomination in 2001 for his performance in Gladiator. This would prove to be his breakout role and was soon followed by accolades for Walk the Line and The Master, before finally winning an Oscar in 2020 for his interpretation of the Joker.

The death of River Phoenix would mean that several projects that he had expressed interest in were instead offered to other actors. Once filming had wrapped on Dark Blood, he was scheduled to relocate to New Orleans to commence work on Interview with the Vampire. The role would ultimately go to Christian Slater, who donated his salary to several of Phoenix’s favourite charities. Following this, he was to collaborate with John Malkovich on the Arthur Rimbaud biopic Total Eclipse, and an adaptation of Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. Both roles would go to Leonardo DiCaprio. Other productions that were forced to recast included Van Sant’s Milk and Robert Allan Ackerman’s Safe Passage. One can only wonder what other characters could have been brought to life by River Phoenix. During the mid-nineties, Johnny Depp pursued unconventional screenplays with an independent sensibility, resulting in such acclaimed pictures as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Dead Man. But the world would be denied the opportunity to watch Phoenix develop his craft into adulthood.

Due to his good looks and premature death, Phoenix was heralded as the new James Dean, an icon for a generation. ‘The street outside the Viper Room became a shrine to River Phoenix, with fans and admirers travelling from far and wide to mark the site where the actor died,’ detailed biographer Brian J. Robb. ‘Many laid flowers. Incense burned, and the walls and doors were adorned with scribbled chalk notices, all aimed at commemorating River Phoenix. Inscribed in blue and gold chalk was the phrase, ‘The eternal river flows,’ on a watercolour, left beside the spontaneous pavement altar to the fallen star. Another inscription read, ‘A true individual who will be remembered.’ While most of these offerings were heartfelt expressions of grief at the loss of Phoenix, this being Hollywood, some could not resist the chance that publicity might help their careers, no matter how macabre the means. One aspiring actress named Missy had attached an eight-by-ten head-shot of herself to a condolence note and a bunch of flowers.’

River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves stood on the rooftop, the wind blowing through his long dark hair. More than twenty years had passed since the death of his close friend, and in that time he had rarely mentioned his name in public. The two had first met in late 1989 when they were both cast in a black comedy called I Love You to Death, and eighteen months later River Phoenix had convinced a reluctant Reeves to star alongside him as a rent-boy in the arthouse picture My Own Private Idaho. In a rare moment of emotional honesty, Reeves recalled memories of his dear friend. ‘We’re in Italy, and we’re shooting this scene where [Phoenix] and I are out in Italy with the girl, and I was on this farm,’ he laughed. ‘It was a sheep farm. We’re hanging out between takes, hanging out with River. We’re just watching the sheep play; jumping around the hay, and everything like that. We’re taking a walk back to the house. We come by and there’s these two sheep hanging with their blood coming out. The gentleman slit the sheep, and then pulled its skin off, but when it got to the head he had to give it this tug! And he pulled it off. River was standing there, and he’s like, ‘Sweater’s tight!’’

On the front of every magazine and newspaper was the face of River Phoenix. On every news station was the 911 call made by his brother. The world had become obsessed with his death, and no sooner was the tragedy announced that his films received renewed interest from the public. Thus, the likes of Stand by Me and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade returned to the rental charts. Phoenix had been an advocate for veganism and environmentalism at a time when it was unfashionable for Hollywood stars to speak up on real-world issues, but despite being lauded as one of the most talented actors of his generation, many felt that he was unprepared for the hostile nature of the entertainment industry. ‘I love River’s family,’ said his ex-girlfriend, Martha Plimpton. ‘They brought him up to believe he was a pure soul who had a message to deliver to the world. But they created this Utopian bubble so that River never socialised. He was never prepared for the world in which he’d have to deliver that message.’

After the initial mourning, the producers of Dark Blood soon realised that they would have to make the difficult decision on whether to attempt to complete the movie without Phoenix, or close down the production. Seven months earlier, the producers behind the comic book fantasy The Crow had faced a similar dilemma when their star, Brandon Lee, had been shot on set. While its director had reservations about returning to the picture after the death of a friend, the producers had decided to complete the movie with the help of a stand-in, so his final performance could be seen by the world. But with so many key scenes still to film, a stand-in seemed like an impossible alternative for Dark Blood, and while Sluizer returned to the Netherlands to avoid the media circus, the debate regarding the fate of the film would continue between the financiers.  

‘I remember River’s agent called me at 4 o’clock in the morning to tell me that he had died. And then, literally, within hours – I think by noon the following day – the insurance companies were calling me and saying, ‘What are we going to do?’’ explained producer JoAnne Sellar. ‘I had to go to a lot of meetings, make decisions, be in complete business mode, and keep all the emotion in check. We dealt with the situation as best we could; we went through different scenarios and conversations about re-shooting, keeping the stuff with Judy and Jonathan, but re-shooting the River scenes – which would have meant re-casting River’s character, and going back to Utah and starting again. What was so weird was there were mothers calling the production saying, ‘If you’re looking for someone, I have a son who looks just like River Phoenix.’ These were pretty freaky phone calls. It was surreal. So I was having to re-budget and work on all these different scenarios. Financially, it seemed that the best thing to do was to abandon the film at that point, which was pretty awful.’ And so Dark Blood was cancelled indefinitely.

‘After it was decided by all the people involved that the film would stop, there was a problem between the insurance company and the bank who did the cash flow for the film,’ Sluizer explained to the BBC. ‘They didn’t agree on one bill, and they did not agree about whom might own the negatives. That went on for seven years. And in the meantime, the film was in a storage in a locked area. The two companies decided, ‘We’re fed up fighting each other.’ The insurance were anxious not to pay more storage costs. So finally it was decided they would burn the material.’ In a discussion with Cinecrowd he further elaborated on what happened next. ‘When I heard of their intention, I personally commissioned the retrieval of the footage,’ he stated. Hiring a truck and recruiting a group of friends to run the rescue mission, Dark Blood was illegally obtained by its director and placed safely in a temperature-controlled vault in Amsterdam.

River Phoenix and Anne Sluizer

Eight more years would pass before one fateful moment on Christmas Day 2007, when Sluizer would suffer an aneurysm while riding an all-terrain vehicle in the French Alps. Following extensive surgery, he would undergo a year of physical therapy, during which time his thoughts would soon turn to his abandoned feature. ‘Completing this film now also gave me the opportunity to make my tribute to River, because I very much liked him and thought he was a talented actor,’ said Sluizer when explaining his motives for recutting the movie twenty years later. ‘The fact is I suddenly became ill about four years ago, an aneurysm, and was told my years could be limited. So I wanted to finish the movie now. It came as an urgency to me.’

Despite his increasingly poor health, Sluizer commenced work on resurrecting Dark Blood by restructuring certain aspects of the story, while filling in the narrative with a voiceover that he would perform himself. His intention was for all the hard work that the cast and crew had endured in the autumn of 1993 to finally see the light of day, and for fans of River Phoenix to witness his final performance. Yet despite his intentions, some of those associated with the movie had reservations about his decision. ‘I can’t imagine what he could have cobbled together,’ commented Davis. ‘What would be the interest in an unfinished film, other than a rather questionable curiosity in River? I don’t care personally. Makes no difference to me.’

For Powell, whose production credits had included the Academy Award-winning drama The Crying Game, the decision of whether or not to return to Dark Blood was a question of taste. ‘For me, the most respectable thing was to close it, not attempt to finish it, and let bygones be bygones,’ he insisted. ‘George always wanted to finish the movie. He’s a director. I can understand that.’ When Pryce received a copy of the completed movie after so many years he was unable to revisit it, with both the memory of the unpleasant shoot and the sadness of having seen Phoenix destroy himself at such a young age proving too painful. ‘The DVD has been sitting in our room at home for about six weeks, but I can’t bring myself to watch it,’ he claimed. ‘Making that movie was one of the most horrendous experiences of my life. I never wanted to make another film again.’

When watching the array of performances that Phoenix had delivered throughout his all-too-brief career, one cannot help but wonder what kind of actor he would have become as he matured through the years. How many celebrated roles could he have made his own? ‘I suspect he would have gone on to play harder, more interesting characters,’ declared Woolley, who was set to produce Phoenix once again on Interview with the Vampire. ‘Robert Downey Jr. is exactly the kind of guy that River would have become, had he lived. There’s a comparison there in the conflict between what pays the rent and what challenges you creatively, and also, I think, in the way they were both hung out to dry. I was quite surprised at the end when it became apparent that there was no one looking after River. Nobody could; he was a grown man, of course, but in another sense he was still a kid.’

Nineteen years after the death of River Phoenix, Dark Blood enjoyed its public debut, when it was screened at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht on 27 September, 2012, before making an out-of-competition appearance at the Berlin International Film Festival the following February. Having been completed through a Dutch crowdfunding site, Sluizer was finally able to bring his vision to the big screen. ‘If I may make a comparison,’ he would say on the motion picture. ‘We had a chair with two legs and I wanted to add a third leg, to edit and preserve what we had achieved. The fourth leg will always be missing…Please take pleasure in the unfinished film, Dark Blood.’ Against all odds and even protests from Phoenix’s family, his fans were allowed the chance to watch his last performance before his untimely death, and on 20 September, 2014, almost two years to the day since it made its world premiere in the Netherlands, George Sluizer passed away at the age of eighty-two.

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