River Phoenix in "Dark Blood." / Sluizer Films
River Phoenix's final film, "Dark Blood," made its U.S. premiere at the Miami International Film Festival on Wednesday, 20 years after the young actor's death.
Phoenix died in the middle of production at age 23 from a cocaine and heroin overdose outside the Viper Room in Los Angeles.
In the film, Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis play a jet-set Hollywood couple who travel through the desert desperately trying to save their marriage on a second honeymoon. They seek shelter in Phoenix's shack after their car breaks down, unaware that he intends to keep them as prisoners. Phoenix played Boy, whose wife died of leukemia from nuclear testing, leaving him alone and isolated in the desert.
After his death, there was talk of finding another actor to replace Phoenix or using special effects to finish "Dark Blood." The film was about 80 percent complete and most of the missing scenes were between Davis and Phoenix. But the film's director George Sluizer ultimately passed on those options and the film footage sat untouched in a vault for years.
"River was a gentle, respectful person. I must say that I was very fond of him," Sluizer said.
Price and Sluizer both insist Phoenix was not using drugs while filming in Utah. But something was noticeably wrong with Phoenix when the crew returned for a shoot in Los Angeles. His eyes floated, he walked differently and sat listlessly for long periods of time.
"He had been taking something. That was quite visible," Sluizer said.
He dismisses any notion that the film is exploiting River's death.
Sluizer said he spoke with Phoenix's mother, Arlynn "Heart" Phoenix, and invited her and other family members to attend the Berlin premiere last month where the film received a standing ovation.
"She said, 'Well, good luck with the movie but we are not participating,'" saying the family felt the movie was finished, Sluizer said.
It's uncertain whether the film will ever go to a general release.