The runaway success of 1969’s Easy Rider marked Dennis Hopper as one of Hollywood’s top renegades. He only directed one more film.

Flush from a million-dollar deal with Universal, Hopper and his crew headed to Peru to make The Last Movie, a stinging indictment of Hollywood culture starring him as the disillusioned horse wrangler Kansas. When the film company departs after a fatal stunt, the Peruvian villagers reenact the production—with deadly results, because they don’t quite grasp movie make-believe. Soon Kansas, who has fallen for a former prostitute, is ensnared by this mock movie.

After months on location and weeks of editing in Mexico, Hopper—also a talented artist, photographer, and character actor in Rebel Without a Cause, Giant, and with John Wayne in The Sons of Katie Elder — delivered the film to the studio in 1971. Many who saw it found it self-indulgent and incoherent; despite successful screenings in New York and Venice, Universal refused to release it. 

Over the years, however, The Last Movie has accrued its fair share of champions. One of them is Alex Cox, a friend of Hopper (who died in 2010) and director of the 1984 sci-fi/punk-rock cult classic Repo Man. “Most films are quite predictable in terms of their narrative,” he says. “A few minutes into a Hollywood movie, the viewer usually has a good idea what's going to happen.

The Last Movie doesn't do this,” adds Cox. “It’s complicated and multi-layered. It sticks in the mind.”

This year’s Houston Cinema Arts Festival will conclude Nov. 12 at Rice Cinema with a recently restored print of The Last Movie, at last scheduled for a Blu-ray release the next day. The location is a nod to Hopper’s 1983 appearance there, best remembered for his attempt of the “Russian Suicide Chair” stunt afterward at a nearby racetrack. (Google it; it’s worth it.) 

Cox will introduce the film and stick around the next night to screen Walker, his 1987 film starring Ed Harris as an American mercenary who declared himself ruler of Nicaragua in the 1850s.

Just as Walker is a thinly disguised commentary on U.S. military intervention in Central America, Cox believes The Last Movie is as relevant as ever.

“I think the film would have resonated with an audience in 1971 if Universal hadn't been determined to kill it,” he says.

“Will a contemporary audience feel as strongly about the film? In some ways I think the audience is more ready now for a frank depiction of a the movie hero as male chauvinist wife-beater,” adds Cox. “We shall see.”

Nov 12 at 7 p.m. Tickets $12 (festival passes from $149). Rice Media Center, 6100 Main St. 713-429-0420. More info and tickets at houstoncinemaartsfestival.org.

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