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 the cave sequence 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 would soon lead 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 1992 he tool on the role of a narcoleptic hustler in Gus Van Sant’s arthouse feature My Own Private Idaho.
He was just a boy
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, called Aleka’s Attic, and it would be through his association with musicians that Phoenix would first be introduced to the world of drugs. As a result, his relationship with actress Martha Plimpton would come to an end, and around the same time he moved out of the family ranch and purchased a house in Gainesville, Florida, where he would regularly perform on the local club scene. ‘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.’
Phoenix had experienced something of an unorthodox childhood, one that would help prepare him for the role of a loner living off the land in Dark Blood. Born in Oregon as the first child of two hippies desperately searching for meaning in their lives, River Jude Bottom would spend his first decade on the road as his parents travelled across America, enjoying the counterculture while finding menial work and accommodation on farms and ranches around the country. In 1972, when their son was just two-years-old, they crossed paths with a religious cult known as the Children of God and, offering their undying devotion to the cause, soon found themselves in Venezuela, where his father had been blessed with the title of Archbishop. But the family eventually grew wise to the corruption within the group and decided to return to America, where they would rechristen themselves Phoenix, a symbol of their rebirth as they attempted to rejoin society.
With both River and Rain having displayed a talent for entertaining, and with their father unable to continue working due to an injury, their firstborn was elected as the Phoenix breadwinner, and in 1980 River began to make minor appearances on television. And while he would enjoy climbing into the skin of his characters and living alternative lives, coupled with the platform that his celebrity status had allowed for him to express his political opinions to his audience, ever since the days of busking on the streets of Venezuela, he had been nurturing a desire to play music that would first emerge in the late eighties through his singing and songwriting with Aleka’s Attic. By the time he commenced work on Dark Blood, it was rumoured that Phoenix had considered retiring from the film industry and to return to his family in Florida. He had already committed to a supporting role in an upcoming adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 bestseller Interview with the Vampire, and had expressed an interest in collaborating with Van Sant on a proposed project, but beyond his immediate obligations he intended on leaving the world of Hollywood behind.
‘I don’t see myself at all as ever being a Hollywood actor, hopefully. I really try to stay away from the self-awareness of it being acting and me being an actor. We live away from Los Angeles, I don’t look at the magazines, I don’t really get involved in all that stuff,’ Phoenix told Dolly in 1989. ‘I stay as detached as possible, and it’s really helped me stay candid as far as my career goes. I’m working on my family and the foundations here at home. At eighteen, it’s an important time to get level and really take everything in and get it all in perspective. I play a lot of music in a little garage band, smacking away the tunes.’ And yet despite his desire to leave Hollywood behind, he was considering following in the footsteps of his friend Johnny Depp by opening a night club of his own. ‘I’m going to open the hottest blues bar in the whole wide world,’ he explained to TV hits several months before his death. ‘Well, it never would have happened if it wasn’t for my acting. It all happened during the shooting of Sneakers. I met Dan Akroyd and we really got on and seemed to have a lot in common right from the start; we both just love blues music.’
For Sluizer, Dark Blood had first come to his attention following the modest success of his commercial breakthrough Spoorloos, and its English language remake The Vanishing, which he had just wrapped production on for 20th Century Fox. The acclaim that he had garnered with the original 1988 motion picture had had led to a courting from major studios, and this had allowed him the freedom to choose his next project. Having received a letter from a struggling Australian 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 1989 aquatic thriller Dead Calm, and combining it with the fear of the wilderness that had been explored in both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, Dark 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 once again.
By the time Dark Blood entered development in early 1993, Phoenix had become one of the most respected actors of his generation, having shared a similar sensibility to fellow heartthrob Johnny Depp for selecting unusual projects that lacked commercial appeal. Despite having already portrayed a widower grief-stricken following the death of his wife 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.’
In an effort to pull him from the temptations of Hollywood and to allow him to prepare for the role, Phoenix was invited by the director to the set several days before the cast and crew. Wishing to capture a barren landscape that would echo the empty lives of the characters, Sluizer had chosen the small Utah town of Torrey as their base of operations. With a population of less than two hundred citizens, the location was far removed from the chaos of Los Angeles, and despite the production having to struggle without the amenities that many modern Americans may take for granted, the director felt that it was a sacrifice worth making. With Phoenix enjoying a break from alcohol and substances, he would join Sluizer on walks through the mountains while discussing the story and characters, in preparation for when the cameras were ready to roll.
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 his senior, Australian-born Judy Davis had already worked with such renowned filmmakers as David Lean, the Coen Brothers and Woody Allen, but would take an instant dislike to both the director and screenplay. ‘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.’
I absolutely believe in my intuition
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 on the hands-on approach he was forced to take as tensions threatened the film. ‘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.’
Although Davis may have proved problematic for both Sluizer and his young actor, his other co-star would be both professional and supportive towards Phoenix. Jonathan Pryce had first gained international recognition for his performance in Terry Gilliam’s 1985 science fiction satire Brazil, and with this cult classic being one of Phoenix’s favourite movies, he was excited at the opportunity to work with the veteran actor. In fact, so accommodating was Pryce that he has arranged a meeting between Phoenix and Gilliam for their first weekend in Los Angeles, a favour that Phoenix was overwhelmed by. Any issues that Davis may have had were clearly not shared by Pryce, who was more than willing to take the younger actor under his wing. ‘River was absolutely delightful,’ he would say to 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, 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.
‘One of the things that was introduced to me early on in life was you had to try to make stuff happen. But what I’ve learned is if you try and play God with your life, it’ll wreck your brain and nervous system,’ revealed Phoenix in 1992. ‘I just don’t want to read about me being made into a head-case because of my work. What I don’t want is self-pity. If anything, I guess I used to take things too seriously. I’ve learned that even among the chaos and discomfort, you need to have the freedom to stand back and laugh. You can’t take it too seriously, yet it’s a serious business. I really don’t have that fear about acting or a deep need to carve out a successful career. The fact is I’m better off in my life now than I’ve ever been. Once you’ve been through hard times, and we were very poor growing up, it doesn’t scare you again.’
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 on the tenth anniversary of his death. ‘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.’
Despite having refrained from drug use during his time in Utah, the first day of studio work in Los Angeles had followed a day of travelling, during which Phoenix had met with friends. ‘The last day he was high, he’d definitely taken something the day before,’ claimed Sluizer in 2012. ‘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.’ Davis had expressed her reservations about his mental state shortly after his death when looking back on the filming of the cave scenes . ‘We had just come back to L.A.,’ she explained. ‘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 when the problems started.’
At approximately 7pm on 30 October 1993, Phoenix made his way from the studio to Room 328 at the Hotel Nikko in Beverly Hills, where the producers had booked suits for the entire production. Meeting up with Rain and his younger brother, Joaquin, the Phoenix ensemble were soon accompanied by River’s girlfriend and The Thing Called Love co-star, Samantha Mathis, his assistant, Abby Rude, and her husband. By the time that Sluizer had returned to the hotel, his young star was heading out for the evening. This would be the last time that he would see Phoenix alive. After spending a couple of hours at a house party in Beverly Hills that had also seen eighteen-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio in attendance, they headed to the Viper Room, a popular live venue on the Sunset Strip that had recently been purchased and refurbished by Johnny Depp and his occasional 21 Jump Street co-star Sal Jenco.
The convulsions suddenly stopped
Arriving at the club sometime after midnight, Phoenix was reportedly struggling to remain balanced, and after a burst of erratic energy he had vomited over himself and then passed out in his seat. Eventually coming to, he asked to be taken outside to allow the fresh air to clear his head, but as he stepped back out onto the Strip he collapsed and began to have violent seizures. While Rain attempted to keep him steady, Joaquin ran to a nearby payphone, where he pleased with emergency services for help, a call that would be regularly played by news stations for weeks to come. After approximately ten minutes, the convulsions suddenly stopped and Phoenix lay still. With paramedics arriving on the scene soon afterwards, he was rushed to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre where doctors tried to resuscitate him, but at 1:51am, River Phoenix was pronounced dead.
‘River’s agent called me,’ said Sluizer on the moment in which he would be informed of his friend and actor’s passing. ‘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 go on to add, ‘I was in charge, so I informed the other two actors and the crew that River had passed away. It took everyone by surprise. You don’t expect someone that young to die.’ Pryce would detail his own phone call in a 2013 article; ‘I didn’t know where I was for a moment. It was the producer on the line. All she said was, ‘River’s dead.’ It seemed impossible, so I reached for the remote control and clicked on the television at the foot of the bed, and there it was, on screen.’
After the initial mourning, the producers soon realised that they would have to make the difficult decision on whether to attempt to complete the movie without Phoenix, or close down production indefinitely. 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 due to an error with a loaded gun, and had passed away hours later in an operation room. 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, 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.
‘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.
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.