- Year: 1987
- Director: Alan Parker
- Starring: Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet, Robert De Niro
While it’s not rare for horror films to have mystery elements, there aren’t too many films with equal parts mystery and horror. Alan Parker’s Angel Heart borrows from film noir and horror, two incredibly atmospheric genres, and creates a film just drenched in New Orleans.
Based on William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel, Angel Heart starts in New York in 1955. Private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) gets a call from the law firm of Winesap and MacIntosh. They represent Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro), who is trying to track down former crooner Johnny Favorite who owes him… something. Okay, so it’s pretty obvious who Louis Cyphre is, but that’s not really the mystery of Angel Heart.
Appearance-wise, Cyphre is an incredibly creepy Devil. He meets Harry at a creepy cult church in a seedy part of the city, and just look at his long, slick hair and beard. At times, he also carries a creepy cane with a skull on top. He is going to stand out no matter where he is, and for the creepy voodoo and Satanist themes this movie presents, he’s the kind of Devil they’d worship.
It turns out Johnny disappeared from a hospital years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. Angel assumes it to be a pretty easy missing persons case, and scopes out the hospital find it. This leads him to Dr. Fowler (Michael Higgins) a morphine-addicted doctor whose addiction Angel tries to use to get answers out of him. He locks Fowler in his room, leaves, and comes back to find him shot through the eye.
Afraid he might get charged with the murder, Angel tries to get off the case, but Cyphre tempts him with more money. Angel continues to interview more and more people who might have known Johnny, and he soon finds himself in New Orleans.
A lot of characters only have a scene or two, but that’s because they often wind up dead, often murdered in extra-horrifying ways. For example, Margaret Krusemark’s heart is cut out and Toots Sweet is forcibly choked to death on his own genitals. Like in Se7en though, it’s more about what we don’t see. We see Margaret’s corpse, but we (for obvious reasons) don’t see the murders committed in full detail.
Well, let’s just get to the enormous reveal—Harry Angel is Johnny Favorite. Yeah, it sounds like something that shouldn’t work, but it does. Why?
First of all, Angel Heart came out in 1987, long before a lot of the famous “split personality” twist movies came out. Second, it’s not really a split personality twist. Unlike Unnamed 1999 Film and many others, Johnny Favorite and Harry Angel were both real people. Johnny, through an obscure and horrifying ritual, killed Harry and absorbed his persona. Since this movie deals with dark spiritual themes from the beginning, it’s not just an Outer Limits twist (See my review of Somewhere in Time for more on that…).
Plus, all of the actors (except one, who we will get to), are playing this material incredibly straight. Harry, for obvious reasons, laughs things off at first, but as the plot progresses, he accepts it as the horrible truth. There’s a reason the tagline was “Harry Angel is searching for the truth… Pray he doesn’t find it.” If Mickey Rourke didn’t just hit the climactic scenes out of the park, the movie might have collapsed upon itself. Just watch his heartbreaking performance in the “I know who I am scene.” At first, the cry of “I know who I am” is a scream of denial when he sees his own name on the dog tags, revealing that he was the victim of Johnny’s ritual.
When Cyphre appears, it becomes a confident boast. Harry is trying to convince himself that it’s not possible, and at first he believes it. Over just the course of a few minutes, though, his confidence falls apart. Rourke never overdoes it with histrionics or huge tears, but rather a personal breakdown. It’s such a natural performance in a supernatural film that we completely believe it. His naturalistic acting is reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando, with the internalizing and the breakdown of a confident persona.
After looking the mirror, he cries a few more “I know who I am”s, but he can’t lie to himself anymore. He finally accepts who he truly is, Johnny Favorite, and mutters an accepting “I know who I am,” this time actually meaning it. He tries to shout it once more and lie to himself, but it doesn’t do any good. There are plenty of creepy, unsettling, and downright horrifying moments in Angel Heart, but nothing is scarier than Harry Angel accepting the truth about himself. This is the emotional weight of the film, and Rourke makes us feel every ounce of it.
As I mentioned, most of the supporting cast only gets a scene or two, but they are all memorable. Charlotte Ramping is great as the upper class fortune teller Margaret Krusemark, and Brownie McGhee is rightfully creepy as Toots Sweet. Stocker Fontelieu only has a few minutes of screen time as Margaret’s father Ethan, but we learn so much about his character. It’s creepy just how much he smiles as he talks about conjuring up the Devil and Johnny selling his soul. The music and the pace of this scene, in addition to his delivery, make what could be just an exposition scene terrifying. Of course, there’s also the stereotypical cops on Angel’s trail, but since Angel is actually the villain, they turn out to not be the worst people in the world. Plus, Pruitt Taylor Vince is just so slimy as Detective Deimos, who talks so much that his partner 1948 Presidential candidate Thomas Dewey is perpetually silent.
Sadly, the reason a lot of people know Angel Heart is for the controversy surround Lisa Bonet. Her performance is sublime, but unfortunately it got overshadowed at the time by the fact that she did a sex scene. Yep, shocker, an of-age actress did a sex scene and the world reacted in horror. Okay, so there’s a little more than that I guess, but it got blown way out of proportion. She was only 19 and Rourke was in his thirties, and since Bonet’s character Epiphany was Johnny’s daughter, it did turn out to be an incestuous scene. The biggest controversy, though, was that she was on The Cosby Show.
I’m not gonna do it. I’m not going to make a joke or show a picture of Bill Cosby from The Devil and Max Devlin. It’s not funny. It’s enraging that she was kicked off The Cosby Show for this.
There is one weak link, though, and surprisingly it’s Robert De Niro. You don’t need me to tell you that De Niro is one of the greatest actors of all time, but his performance here feels like it’s out of a different movie. He’s over-the-top and feels like he’s winking to the camera too many times. There’s a scene where he mentions that some view the egg as a symbol for the soul, so of course he eats an egg. Rourke is wonderful in the scene, particularly when he throws salt over his shoulder, but De Niro eating the egg just isn’t that creepy.
Angel Heart does manage to do a wonderful job of blending film noir and horror. In the “I know who I am” scene, Harry throws out a theory that Cyphre is just a man pretending to be the Devil so he can get away with murder. The mystery fan in me really thinks this would be a good twist, and if the film was a straight mystery/film noir, yeah it would be, but it’s a horror film too. If there was nothing supernatural involved, we would miss out on all of Harry’s nightmares and a lot of the creepy imagery and foreshadowing.
Intercut throughout scenes, we get repeated images of ceiling fans, tapping feet, chickens, someone climbing stairs, an apartment lit in red light, all played over Trevor Jones’ nightmarish score. Some of them go on to have meeting later in the film, while others remain a bit ambiguous. Obviously, the red room is where the occult ritual took place, and it’s implied that chicken blood was involved in this too. The ceiling fans were originally going to be foreshadowing for a scene where Herman Winesap is decapitated by one, but this was ultimately, um, cut. We do get a brief scene of his death in a montage during Harry and Epiphany’s sex scene, though. I don’t know, the ceiling fans kind of seem even creepier without having any actual payoff. They just play up the seedy atmosphere of all the movie’s locations.
Plus, if the supernatural turned out not to be real, we would lose the film’s greatest metaphor—PTSD. Think about it. Johnny Favorite comes back from the war literally a different person. No one can recognize him. He has triggers like looking in a mirror that ultimately lead him to violence. Ultimately, the reveal of his true identity is written on his dog tags.
We also get some clever teases throughout about Harry Angel’s true identity. When Margaret asks for his birth date, he says the exact same day as Johnny’s. However, we later learn that he was just doing this to learn more about Margaret and Johnny’s relationship. When Ethan tries to get Harry to sample the gumbo, he passes, saying he has “an acid stomach,” referencing the ritual where Johnny cut Harry’s heart out…
On that note, let’s check out the final score.
Story (19/20 Points)
It’s really dark, throwing almost every conceivable horrifying act imaginable (incest, cannibalism, horrifying murders) into the mix, but a lot of it is suggested rather than shown. The mystery and horror elements mix wonderfully, and the climax is thrilling.
Faust (20/20 Points)
Rourke should have won an Oscar for the “I know who I am scene” alone.
Devil (12/20 Points)
De Niro completely looks the part, and he has a couple fine moments, but his tone is way off. He’s playing it too lighthearted for a movie this serious.
Supporting Cast (20/20 Points)
There is a huge supporting cast, but they are all give memorable turns. Lisa Bonet and Stocker Fontelieu in particular stand out, but they all just add to the atmosphere and story.
Experience (19/20 Points)
I want to give a perfect score, because the music and cinematography is flawless. However, twice in the movie, a character’s eyes turn yellow, and it just looks hokey and shouldn’t have been done.
FINAL SCORE: 90%
Angel Heart is not for everyone, but if you’re a fan of either supernatural horror or film noir, you’ll like it. If you’re a fan of both genres like me, you’ll love it.
Next week, another iconic actor takes on the role of Satan in 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate.