Angel Heart: Dark Intrigue and Sinister Seduction
It’s a lonely place for someone like me over on Letterboxd just now. Whilst the bulk of the community celebrate the Halloween season with the Hooptober Horror Film Challenge I, never much of a joiner-inner, continue to watch whatever takes my fancy. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good scary movie, I just couldn’t think of anything worse than watching nothing but them for four weeks. However, m’colleagues here at The Geek Show have offered me a concessionary branch-line in the shape of this review for Alan Parker’s 1987 film, Angel Heart.
Is Angel Heart a horror though? Well, it has some voodoo shit (genuine technical term) and deeply sinister, satanic overtones so I guess it qualifies. Wikipedia calls it a psychological horror, but also an American neo-noir, and I think it fits both genres perfectly, meaning there’s plenty here for a non-Hooptober person like me to appreciate. Based on a 1978 novel by William Hjortsberg entitled Falling Angel, Alan Parker’s adaptation follows Mickey Rourke as down-at-heel, postwar gumshoe Harry Angel from the rainy streets of New York to the sweltering backwoods of New Orleans as he attempts to track down former crooner Johnny Favorite for his mysterious client Louis Cyphre, played by a heavily bearded, pony-tailed and long-fingernailed Robert De Niro. Favorite it seems has broken some kind of contract with the enigmatic Cyphre and Harry’s investigations soon turn up more dead bodies than dead ends. Sucked into a hinterland of sex, murder and voodoo, Harry tries his best to get out before he too becomes a casualty, but it seems that his fate is already sealed.
The road to the big screen had been a long and arduous one for Angel Heart. Almost immediately after the novel’s publication, Hjortsberg had begun working on a film adaptation, attracting interest with Robert Evans at Paramount. Talk of John Frankenheimer directing and Dustin Hoffman starring eventually came to nothing and the project languished in development hell until Alan Parker entered the frame. The British director, then best known for hits like Fame and Midnight Express, had read Hjortsberg’s novel not long after it had been published and was now eager to pen the screenplay himself. Securing full creative control and finance through independent studio, Carolco Pictures, Parker set about amending Hjortsberg’s narrative to something more filmic. It was the director’s decision to relocate much of the action to New Orleans in order to fully embrace the allusions to the occult that littered the book as well as to crucially change the ending and ultimately, the identity of the killer.
Whilst opinion on Angel Heart was originally split, the supernatural thriller has gone on to become regarded as a minor cult classic of the genre and a deeply influential piece for many filmmakers including Christopher Nolan, who claims that his 2000 film Memento was heavily inspired by Parker’s fractured narrative and editing style displayed here. Like many a Parker movie, Angel Heart is a deeply stylish production, one that is fuelled by a sense of impending Gothic doom, dark intrigue and a kind of sinister seduction. Its narrative relies on plot twists (which explains why I haven’t gone into too much detail regarding the storyline, in case some readers haven’t seen it) and, whilst these may be easy for some audiences to predict, the quality in how the story is told makes it stand out and worth sticking around for. Whilst Parker handles the murky action with aplomb and revels in locations as wide-ranging as a truly desolate looking Coney Island to the rickety shacks and gumbo huts of New Orleans, it’s unarguable that the quality of his performers factors in the success. Rourke is truly at the height of his powers here and it’s watching something like this that makes you mourn for the subsequently disappointing career and disastrous facelifts that awaited him. His Harry Angel may be a tough nut who does some deeply unsympathetic things, but he is not of himself unsympathetic. As with the tradition of hardboiled, Chandleresque heroes, his Angel is a man whose intelligence and heart (pun not intended) lies beneath a stolidly cynical and seemingly dispassionate, ‘too cool for school’ exterior. It helps too that Rourke simply has to bring his A-game when faced with the prospect of a cameoing De Niro as Cyphre. Much like Rourke, De Niro has become an embarrassing shadow of his former self in recent years, but it’s important to remember the sheer commitment he brought to roles back in his peak, even small ones such as this. As the sinister Cyphre, he is the epitome of an evil that is irresistible in its peculiar allure. It’s an understated performance of a character that many other actors would approach on a much larger scale, and his decision to underplay works beautifully for the film as a result. Rounding out the cast is a small but impactful cameo from Charlotte Rampling as Favorite’s wife and the big screen debut of Lisa Bonet, then best known for her role as Denise Huxtable in family sitcom The Cosby Show. Her decision to take the role of Favorite’s illegitimate daughter, the brilliantly named Epiphany Proudfoot, proved to be a deeply controversial one, on account of the steamy sex scene she shares with Rourke. Her fictional patriarch Bill Cosby, with a degree of irony given what has now come to light, was said to have been particularly displeased by such an explicit sequence. On the strength of that scene, the MPAA initially awarded Angel Heart with an ‘X’ certificate, a rating normally reserved for pornographic movies but some nifty editing by Parker, combined with an appeal, saw them change their rating to a more accessible ‘R’ certificate.
Released by StudioCanal this week on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, DVD and Digital, Angel Heart has been painstakingly restored to how it would have appeared upon its original release and I have to say it looks brilliant, optimising the light and shade upon the screen in a way that enhances the aesthetic and overall menace. Special features include an audio commentary and introduction from Alan Parker as well as an interview with Parker from cinéastes des années 80. A range of extras exploring the cult and traditions of voodoo and its connection to New Orleans, plus trailers, features and profiles round off this impressive release.