Angel Heart

Movie Information

The Thursday Night Horror Picture Show will screen Angel Heart Thursday, April 29, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of the Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.
Score:

Genre: Film-Noir Horror
Director: Alan Parker
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet, Charlotte Rampling, Robert De Niro
Rated: NR

If I were pressed to list the creepiest horror movie ever made, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart (1987) would be at least close to the top of the list—and maybe at the very top. It has an atmosphere that seeps into your very bones. At the time of its release, the quality, mood and horror content of Parker’s film-noir take on the genre got a little lost in the controversy over its trouble getting an R rating and the prospect of a naked Lisa Bonet. That was really too bad, because Angel Heart is the modern horror film at its finest.

Parker took William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel and transformed its efforts at creating a Raymond Chandler-style horror story into a much grander, broader and heavily symbolic film. Reading the book after you’ve seen the film (which I did), the book seems rather mundane, even though Parker follows the basic story and premise: Low-rent gumshoe, Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke), takes a job from one Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro) to track down a missing big-band crooner, Johnny Favorite. Parker, however, takes the film in directions—and locations—the book never goes.

Originally, Angel Heart was promoted in filmic terms that linked it to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974). There’s some justification for the comparisons, but it’s probably closer in tone to Chinatown than The Exorcist, since everything about it centers on corruption, decay and fate (the last is constantly referenced in symbolic terms). There’s no comfort in religion in the world of Angel Heart. In fact, the film links a flashy Reverend Ike-styled ministry to voodoo, and fundamentalist religion is often glimpsed in the areas where diabolic doings are taking place. Plus, the film (and novel) even boast a character, Ethan Krusemark (New Orleans stage actor Stocker Fontenlieu), who parallels John Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown.

One of Parker’s biggest inspirations was to move the action from New York City to New Orleans part way through the film. This not only broadened the scope of the story, but it afforded the opportunity for the movie to go even deeper into its central occupation of creating an all-encompassing atmosphere. (For that matter, it also made the story even more like the pulp-fiction detective stories that influenced it, since the big-city detective sent into a foreign and hostile environment was a staple, e.g. Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.)

The novel was merely set in the 1950s, the film makes that era and its locales into something deeply—almost tangibly—sinister. The aura of corruption is just beneath the surface of everything and every place, which makes the film also something of a companion piece to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), though that is probably unintentional. What is perhaps not unintentional is the fact that it comes across like a slap in the face to the political climate of the 1980s that tended to idealize the 1950s in ridiculously Disney-fied terms. There is certainly nothing idealized about Parker’s 1950s.

Deeper implications aside, Angel Heart is first and foremost a horror film, and it never forgets that fact. Every scene has that atmosphere. A sense of evil and dread hangs over every moment, and all of it is beautifully accompanied by Trevor Jones’ score (which leans heavily on the 1920s Sunny Clapp pop song “Girl of my Dreams”). All in all, the film is simply a remarkable work.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

8 thoughts on “Angel Heart

  1. ncain

    My problem with the movie is that it cut out some key parts of the narrative, which make it a little disjointed toward the end when compared with the book. They also cut out the most horrific scene in the novel. Of course that scene involved a bisexual orgy and infant sacrifice, which, while effective in the book, would probably have been a bit much for film.

  2. Ken Hanke

    My problem with the movie is that it cut out some key parts of the narrative, which make it a little disjointed toward the end when compared with the book.

    See, I didn’t find it so and I hadn’t read the book when I saw the movie for the first time.

    They also cut out the most horrific scene in the novel. Of course that scene involved a bisexual orgy and infant sacrifice, which, while effective in the book, would probably have been a bit much for film

    It may be a case of what you encountered first, because I didn’t like that part of the book at all and didn’t think it worked, but I came to the book only on the strength of the film.

  3. Dionysis

    I saw the film when it was released, but don’t really remember all that much about it. I do vaguely recall the steamy scene with Lisa Bonet, but not much else. Maybe that’s because I’ve never really cared much for Mickey Rourke (and I’ve yet to see The Wrestler), and perhaps that kept me from appreciating some of the points brought up in this review. It might be worth going out tomorrow night and re-visiting it. Perceptions can change a lot in 23 years.

  4. Ken Hanke

    It might be worth going out tomorrow night and re-visiting it. Perceptions can change a lot in 23 years

    They can indeed. And you should come.

  5. Steve

    OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a weenie. The end of this movie scared me half to death, and is one of the big reasons I draw the blinds at night.

    That said, I would see it again. It would be interesting to see it from adult’s perspective.

  6. Ken Hanke

    That said, I would see it again. It would be interesting to see it from adult’s perspective

    You should’ve come last night.

  7. K.J.H. Childers

    Ken …
    again, you are an amazing film critic! I simply stand amazed each and every time I read your reviews. Especially this one.
    I purchased this film on DVD not a few years back, and it now resides in my private collection amongst the best films I care to possess and watch often.

    As for Angel Heart — it is Mr. Rourke’s best performance, putting everything else to shame, yet, it amazes me how somewhat lost it is in time since his reappearance on the scene with his astonishing ‘The Wrestler’. Point is – I can’t think of another actor that could have pulled off this role as he did. Perfectly casted.

    Honestly – I watch this film, typically under the influence of something very strong, typically when it’s raining and dark outside, and alone … to get the full effect of Parker’s nightmare.

    Thanks for mentioning Hammett’s story – I plan to read it later.

  8. Ken Hanke

    Ken …
    again, you are an amazing film critic! I simply stand amazed each and every time I read your reviews

    Well, thank you. Not everyone would agree with you and that’s as it should be.

    As for Angel Heart—it is Mr. Rourke’s best performance

    I would agree.

    Thanks for mentioning Hammett’s story – I plan to read it later

    While I would never disuade anyone from reading Red Harvest, I only cited it as a (maybe the) classic example of the big city detective going into a smaller and hostile environment.

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