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.