After 21 years, “Dark Blood” will finally see the light of day. River Phoenix’s final film, which suspended production in 1993 when the actor died of an overdose but was improbably salvaged by its director years later, has been acquired for U.S. distribution by Lionsgate, the sales company Cinemavault announced Friday in Cannes.
Lionsgate is planning a VOD release.
Cinemavault said in a statement, “The story behind the making of a film can be as intriguing as the film itself.” In this case, it may be more so.
As detailed in The Times last year, “Dark Blood” survived not only the loss of its leading man but also the near-destruction of the original footage and a life-threatening ailment that struck Dutch director George Sluizer.
The film is set in the Utah desert and 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 filming, Sluizer (“The Vanishing”) was making a foray into Hollywood, and Phoenix was a rising star. When Phoenix overdosed outside a West Hollywood nightclub on Halloween, about 75% of “Dark Blood” had been shot, and salvaging the movie was deemed unfeasible. Production shut down, 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,” the octogenarian director told The Times last October. “On the other hand, I was also angry that we could not finish the movie.”
The story might have ended there, but in 1999 Sluizer learned that the original footage was to be destroyed, even though he had previously tried to acquire it. At the last minute and on questionable legal ground, Sluizer procured the footage from the storage facility. (“I call it saving, not stealing,” Sluizer has said.)
Sluizer didn’t touch the film for almost a decade, but a potentially fatal affliction prompted him to finally revisit the material. Sluizer rewrote and edited the movie in 2012, filling in missing scenes with his own narration and photographs.
“Dark Blood,” in its imperfect but freestanding form, premiered at the Netherlands Film Festival and has since played around the world, including at the Berlin and Miami film fests.
Distribution has been a long-term goal of Sluizer’s, but one complicated by legal negotiations with the insurance company that presumably owned the rights to the original footage.
“I hope it’s coming to an end soon,” Sluizer said of the arduous process in October. And now it has.