George Sluizer at the Berlinale Film Festival in 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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George Sluizer (1932-2014): The obsessive director behind River Phoenix’s last film

The Dutch director, who has died aged 82, stole the unfinished reels for Phoenix’s last film Dark Blood from after coming close to death in 2007.

The Dutch director George Sluizer, who has died aged 82, made only one perfect work: The Vanishing. There are surprisingly few filmmakers who can even match that tally. This 1988 picture follows its own remorseless logic to the natural conclusion, and makes no compromises or concessions along the way. It is so unsettling and strange that to put it in the Thriller or Horror section, or to call it Psychological Drama, would be to diminish it, and give only the feeblest impression of its powers. At the beginning of the film, a woman disappears during a pit-stop that she and her boyfriend make in the middle of a long drive. Years later, the bereft man is contacted by the person who abducted her and offered a choice that is tantalising and terrifying.

Sluizer directs with unshakable calm throughout. Stanley Kubrick told him it was “the most horrifying picture I’ve ever seen”. When he asked whether it was even more horrifying than Kubrick’s own The Shining, the senior director replied that it was. Kubrick’s producer, Jan Harlan, explained: “The Vanishing was real. The Shining was a ghost film. A huge difference.”

He was already 56 when The Vanishing was released, and he had been making films for more than two decades, but this was his international breakthrough. It didn’t lead to glory. He agreed to direct a terrible 1993 US remake of The Vanishing, starring Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges and Sandra Bullock, in which he seemed to unlearn all the lessons of the first film. Subtlety was jettisoned. Here is one example: the forgettable remake got a 15 certificate in the UK whereas the infinitely disturbing original was a mere 12. The superior version didn’t need to be explicit to be scary; it needed only to ask us to imagine the worst.

That vulgar Vanishing was not Sluizer’s only Hollywood misadventure. In 1993, he began directing Dark Blood, a thriller about a fraught married couple whose car breaks down during a desert road trip. They meet a beautiful recluse known only as ‘Boy’, who takes them into his desert shack near a nuclear testing site, and develops a warped obsession with the wife. The couple were played by Jonathan Pryce and Judy Davis. Boy was played by River Phoenix. It had been a difficult shoot, with tensions between Davis and Sluizer, and after seven weeks in the desert, cast and crew flew to Los Angeles for the remainder of production. Phoenix chose to drive to L.A. with friends. When I met Sluizer at the Netherlands Film Festival in Utrecht in September 2012, he recalled the last words the actor ever said to him. “He told me, ‘I’m going back to the bad, bad town.’”

Phoenix, who was 23, died of a drugs overdose in the early hours of the following morning. Eleven days of interior scenes had yet to be shot. Abandoning the movie transpired to be the most cost effective route. The footage was dumped in the insurance company’s vaults despite Sluizer’s repeated offers to buy it back. In 1999, he heard from an associate in L.A that the company was preparing to destroy the film to save on storage costs. Sluizer and friends stole the footage. He hid it in various locations while he worked on other projects, all the while mulling over how he could render Dark Blood fit to see the light of day.

In 2007, still no closer to an answer, he suffered an aneurysm. “Most people die from it,” he told me. “I didn’t. But I was condemned. I’m told I was in a coma. All the doctors said, ‘He’s gone.’ I’m a medical miracle!” His intimate encounter with mortality became the catalyst for solving the Dark Blood dilemma. “I felt that because I was condemned I wanted to leave this creative work in a good condition. I became as obsessive as any artist in history.”

The solution transpired to be simple yet inventive. “I decided not to use any material that we hadn’t shot in 1993.” Instead, the film now begins with stills of Phoenix on set as the director explains in voiceover how his desire to salvage the project gained urgency as his own health declined. He conjures an elegant metaphor in this narration, likening the film to a two-legged chair to which he has now added a third leg, enabling it to stand upright. The fourth leg, he concedes, will always be missing. Having established the ground rules, Sluizer allows the movie to play out, narrating any missing information or dialogue over freeze-framed shots of Phoenix. In coming clean about its own incompleteness, Sluizer made the film feel paradoxically whole.

He wasn’t at all well when I met him in Utrecht almost exactly two years ago, on that cold, crunchy autumn morning following the film’s rapturously-received world premiere. His skin was as pale and translucent as paper and he walked tentatively with two sticks. But he had fire and fight in his eyes. No one can deliver a knockout blow to mortality. Sluizer, though, had put it on the ropes twice over. He had finished a movie in which the lead actor had been dead for almost 20 years. And he had defied the odds to extend his own stay on earth a little longer.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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SRSLY #83: The Awards Special 2017

On the pop culture podcast this week: all the action from the Oscars, plus our own personal awards.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

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SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s assistant editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The Links

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Anna's report on the Oscars.

Our episodes about Oscar-nominated films La La Land, Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Lion and Jackie.

For next time:

Caroline is watching MTV’s Sweet/Vicious.

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See you next week!

PS If you missed #81, check it out here.