When River Phoenix died, in October 1993, he was three weeks from completing his performance in Dark Blood, an $8 million indie film that had already seen five weeks of shooting on location in southern Utah. In this lurid modern film noir, Phoenix was cast as "Boy," a mysterious part-Hopi Indian widower living in the shadow of the Los Alamos nuclear site, where he comes to the aid of two distressed motorists, a Hollywood actor (Jonathan Pryce) and his wife (Judy Davis) en route to a lovers' weekend in the desert. Having invited the couple back to his ramshackle squat, Boy at first appears to be their savior; as he proceeds to delay fixing their broken-down Bentley or using his own truck to drive them to the nearest town, it becomes clear that he is in fact their captor.
Phoenix was hardly the first movie star to die in the middle of production. Just a few months earlier, Brandon Lee had been killed in an accident on the set of The Crow; a few months later, comedian John Candy suffered a fatal heart attack while filming Wagons East. And throughout movie history, performers from Tyrone Power and Jean Harlow to James Dean and Heath Ledger have passed on before completing what would prove to be their last celluloid testaments. But where all of the above films were eventually finished using some combination of recasting, stand-ins and, more recently, CGI, Dark Blood was shut down by the film's insurance provider following Phoenix's death, the existing footage locked away in a film lab. And there, for the next twenty years, it seemed destined to remain, joining such other never-finished films as Terry Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote and Orson Welles's The Other Side of the Wind.
In 1993, the official explanation for Dark Blood's scrapping was that there were too many Phoenix-centric scenes left to shoot for the film to be completed using a stand-in, while it would prove too expensive and time-consuming (given the cast's other commitments) to start over from the beginning with another actor. Now that Dark Blood has finally seen the light of day, in a special out-of-competition screening at last week's Berlin Film Festival, another possibility has come to light: that the insurance company saw the dailies and realized they had a lemon on their hands.
Dark Blood was written and directed by George Sluizer, a Dutchman who turned a lot of heads with his coolly disturbing 1988 thriller The Vanishing, in which a methodical psycho promises the boyfriend of a long-missing woman that he can find out what happened only by agreeing to experience exactly what she did. Unfortunately, nothing on Sluizer's resumé before or since has been nearly as good, including the abhorrent Hollywood remake of The Vanishing Sluizer directed himself in 1993. Dark Blood was his next project, and now it is finally seeing the light of day, cobbled together by the eighty-year-old wheelchair-bound director from the extant footage, which he has admitted to stealing upon learning that it was about to be destroyed.
To bridge the various narrative gaps caused by the missing scenes, Sluizer has inserted still images accompanied by an audio track in which he himself reads the unfilmed script pages — a strategy that has the unintended effect of sending this already overripe howler into full-blown meta-hilarity. In one missing scene, which would have shown Phoenix's character bandaging Davis's wounded foot, Sluizer's dry, Dutch-accented monotone announces: "It's an intimate thing to open someone else's flesh, a woman's flesh." And later, performing a bit of Phoenix's dialogue: "I've been close enough to evil to kiss it on the lips."
There have been other notable attempts over the decades to resurrect or reconstruct aborted film projects, usually in the form of documentaries made by film historians or archivists, like the 1993 It's All True, which pieced together the existing footage from another stalled Welles project, a triptych of stories set in Mexico and South America. Then, in 2009, historian Serge Bromberg managed to convince the widow of French suspense maestro Henri-Georges Clouzot to give him access to the footage from Clouzot's legendary unfinished final feature, L'Enfer, a wildly stylized tale of jealousy and murder that began shooting in 1964 and quickly fell apart. Bromberg supplemented Clouzot's footage with new scenes filmed on a Paris soundstage, featuring the actors Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Jacques Gamblin in the roles originally played by Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani, creating an approximation of what the completed film might have looked like. In both of these cases, however, the existing material pointed to a film worthy of greater discussion and exploration, whereas Dark Blood quickly announces itself as pure folly — a movie that, had it made it to theaters two decades ago, would be long forgotten by now, save for the occasional late-night airing in the basic-cable badlands.