River Phoenix's final (unfinished) film rises from the ashes at last

Twenty years after its star’s death Dark Blood is going to get its premiere. Simon Usborne finds out how – and why – it was completed

Movies are long enough in the making and the lives of actors sufficiently perilous that it’s grimly common for directors to finish a film after a death in the cast. It just doesn’t usually take them two decades to do it.

River Phoenix was 23 and Hollywood’s hottest actor when he overdosed and died while filming Dark Blood  (pictured above). Nineteen years later, the largely forgotten psychological thriller is set to have its US premiere.

The film, which will be screened in March at the Miami International Film Festival, has been described as compelling yet “determinedly strange”. Set in the Utah desert, it also stars British actor Jonathan Pryce (then 45, now 65) and Judy Davis as a couple who take shelter with Phoenix’s mysterious character, Boy, when their car breaks down during a second honeymoon and they almost die of thirst. In short, passions rise and  tragedy ensues.

George Sluizer, the film’s director, has compared his work to a chair with three legs: “The fourth leg will always be missing but the chair will be able to stand upright.” But why is the Dutchman only now revealing his wobbly creation, and how did he restore “Boy” with 20 per cent of filming still to be done?

When Phoenix died of a drug-induced heart failure outside The Viper Room nightclub in Hollywood in October 1993, Dark Blood was abandoned and, Sluizer says, insurance companies wanted to destroy the footage. But in 2011 it emerged that the director, best known for The Vanishing, released earlier in 1993, had rescued the film. Now aged 80, he said awareness of his own mortality prompted by a health scare had given the project new urgency.

Ridley Scott used computer trickery and a mannequin in place of Oliver Reed after he died of a heart attack in a break from filming Gladiator. Terry Gilliam also used CGI to complete Heath Ledger’s role in  The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus when the actor died after an accidental overdose. Sluizer has taken a simpler approach. He  uses his own voice to describe  missing footage.

The director has been criticised for releasing the film and the Phoenix family (River was the eldest of five children) said it wanted no part in the project. But Sluizer has called the work a tribute to the late actor, who had already made more than 20 films, including Stand by Me and My Own Private Idaho. Even in fragments, his final performance in Dark Blood has been hailed in early reviews as one of his best.