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River Phoenix's final film, 'Dark Blood,' to play in Santa Monica

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This Halloween marks the 20th anniversary of the death of actor River Phoenix, who succumbed to an accidental drug overdose outside a West Hollywood nightclub in 1993 at the age of 23. On Tuesday, two days before the anniversary, the actor's unreleased final film, "Dark Blood," will play in the Los Angeles area for the first time.

The screening, at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, represents the latest but perhaps not the last leg of a turbulent two-decade journey for both the film, which to this day remains in a sort of legal limbo, and its director, the now-81-year-old Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer.

"It's nice that people can see it," Sluizer said by phone from his residence in Nice, France, "but not yet everybody."

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As detailed in The Times in February, the story of "Dark Blood" stretches back to 1993 and includes the near-destruction of the original footage as well as a brush with death for Sluizer, who will attend the Santa Monica screening.

At the time of filming, Sluizer was making a foray into Hollywood and Phoenix was a rising star. Sluizer recalled their relationship fondly. "We never had any problem, not even a little one, one single day," the director said. Phoenix "was a very gentle person and respectful."

Set in the Utah desert, "Dark Blood" costars Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis as a Hollywood couple whose second honeymoon goes awry when their car breaks down and they have to seek help from a disaffected young widower, played by Phoenix.

At the time of Phoenix's death, about 75% of the scenes had been shot, and salvaging the movie was deemed unfeasible. Production was quickly shuttered, and an insurance company took possession of the film.

Sluizer was devastated. "I was so sad about River's death that I nearly wanted to quit my profession," he said. "On the other hand, I was also angry that we could not finish the movie."

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The story probably would have ended there had Sluizer not learned in 1999 that the original footage, which he had unsuccessfully tried to acquire, was scheduled to be disposed of. At the 11th hour, and on murky legal ground, Sluizer had the film removed from the storage facility. ("I call it saving, not stealing," Sluizer maintains.)

Sluizer didn't touch the footage for nearly a decade, when a life-threatening ailment prompted him to finally make something of the material. With backing from the Netherlands Film Fund, the crowd-funding website Cinecrowd and his own pocket, Sluizer rewrote and edited the film in 2012, filling in missing scenes with his own narration and photographs.

Since then, the film has been well received at festivals across the globe, in Miami, Hong Kong; Istanbul, Turkey; Moscow; Durban, South Africa; Jerusalem and elsewhere. "I know that the film has an audience," Sluizer said. "I know that the film, let's say, works."

Theatrical distribution remains a thorny issue, however, as the rights to the original footage presumably reside with the insurance company, with whom Sluizer says he and his lawyers have been negotiating for more than a year. He hopes to finally settle things within the next three months.

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"I hope it's coming to an end soon, but I can't guarantee," he said.

The Phoenix family, according to Sluizer, have made it clear they do not wish to be involved with the film in any way.

Phoenix's brother, actor Joaquin Phoenix, declined via his publicist to comment to The Times.

For Sluizer, the journey continues. "This is, I guess, very personal, a personal need," he said. "Like any artist needs to finish a painting or a musician needs to finish his symphony, I had a feeling that this cannot just disappear."

"Dark Blood" screens Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 7:30 p.m. at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, with an introduction by Gavin Edwards, author of the new book "Last Night at the Viper Room: River Phoenix and the Hollywood He Left Behind." For more information, go to the American Cinematheque website.

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