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Exorcising ghosts: FILM

Dark Blood NFT, London
Dark Blood was the film River Phoenix was making when he died of a drugs overdose. Instantly the stuff of legend, the movie was hastily abandoned, the rushes hidden away, and no more was heard of it - until now.

The BFI has recently been running what it calls "The Script Factory", a series of live events at the NFT in which actors do read-throughs of unproduced filmscripts. Having already served up David Lean's Nostromo, this vaguely necrophile season concluded by casting just about the hottest young actor around, Jonathan Rhys-Myers, in the creepy Phoenix role in Dark Blood. Remember that name because you'll be hearing a good deal more about Rhys-Myers in 1997.

There are pretty obvious problems with these kinds of stagings: the scripts were written for cinema and should be cinematic, but Dark Blood could easily have started life as a play, with its one-set feel, its sense of claustrophia and confinement. The story is as follows: pompous British actor Harry and his American wife Buffy break down in the Arizona desert and end up having to stay in an isolated shack with a very disturbed young man known only as Boy. Boy is a snake-frying peyote-chewing survivalist, a loner who carves Indian-style dolls and is obsessed with pornography and guns. This charmless sociopath nevertheless somehow encourages Buffy to flirt with him, with disastrous consequences.

It would have been a meaty role for Phoenix (and pretty similar to the part he played in his last finished film, Silent Tongue). Certainly Rhys- Myers, whom we are told has never even been on a stage before, fell on it with wolfish relish. Myers looks like a rangier version of Will Weaton and is absolutely magnetic, acting Charles Dance, who made a very good Harry (the Jonathan Pryce part in the film), off the stage. It sent chills down the spine to think that we might well be watching the next Phoenix or DiCaprio in the making.

As a staging, the evening worked surprisingly well, even though the actors sat in chairs, with minimal props, for most of the time. It was Myers who dispelled occasional laziness from the more seasoned hands tempted to roll through on autopilot, and Clare Higgins as Buffy picked up many flashes of Myers' youthful vigour. On the right hand side of the stage sat two narrators, Veronica Hicks and Ted Maynard, also sitting, whose word-paintings of the pitiless but beautiful desert gave a haunting air to the proceedings.

Jim Barton, who wrote the screenplay, directed the staging and talked very briefly at the beginning. There was a sense of history about the whole occasion as Barton recounted the fateful filming, and his hopes that the movie will still be made (on a low budget, perhaps even with Myers, he told me afterwards). It certainly deserves to happen, although one day, no doubt, computer technology will be such as to allow Phoenix to reclaim his starring role, albeit in simulation (rather like Brandon Lee's The Crow). It seems that Phoenix in fact completed some of the most extreme scenes before he died, including his character's violent end, a mere two days before his own in the Viper Room in LA.

But happily it wasn't the ghost of untimely death that hovered over the performance. It was the ghost of promise in the thin frame of another hungry, youthful actor.