July 3, 2011

Angel Heart (1987)

"Harry Angel is a private investigator. He is hired by a man who calls himself Louis Cyphre to track down a singer called Johnny Favorite. But the investigation takes an unexpected and somber turn."

Many years ago, when I used to religiously collect every horror movie that "4 Front Video" released (due to the lovely golden sleeves on their VHS tapes), I got myself a copy of "Angel Heart". I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was raining, I was in Woolworths, and "Angel Heart" was on the shelves with all the other £4.99 "4 Front Deletions" (as they were also labelled) which I'd already bought. Obviously this wasn't in 1987 but in the mid-90s as I really had no interest in seeing what I'd heard was a glorified pop video at any point before then. It also didn't help matters much that I already knew what the twist was.

Once home, I put this into my old top-loading VCR and prepared for the worst. No matter how many times I tried, I just couldn't get into it, and, though not a difficult film to understand, I just couldn't follow how Mickey Rourke's character was getting from A to B or why. The truth is that I really didn't much care.

Having now watched it again just to review it, I like it considerably more. While "Angel Heart" still has a lot of flaws, and I'll never quite understand how or why Harry Angel ends up in a Harlem church again after his only lead has apparently committed suicide, it did all look a lot better than I remembered it.

The languid "film noir" pace which once simply sent me to sleep was still the same but reminded me of better films such as "Blade Runner" (1982) and "Chinatown" (1974). The score, of course, is very similar to "Blade Runner" in places but, apart from a few blues-filled excursions into pop video land, it all worked for the benefit of the film.

Where "Angel Heart" excelled was in atmosphere and the grimy, sleazy quality of the filming. Where it failed massively was in the transitions from one location to another and, to be perfectly frank, the dialogue. The acting may have been first class but the words that came out of the characters' mouths often seemed more forced than natural. Although it's no understatement to say that "Angel Heart" is not only Alan Parker's masterpiece but Mickey Rourke's as well, that still doesn't make it a great horror film.

I'm not even sure that "Angel Heart" should really be called a "horror film" though. It may contain a huge amount of voodoo, supernatural elements, and some inventive deaths (most of which you don't even see happen but either hear about or see the aftermath of instead) but it isn't actually all that horrific or scary. Having Robert De Niro give an exquisitely sinister performance as "Louis Cyphre" (yes, you can work that one out easily enough!) may be enough for some people though.

What I really liked about "Angel Heart" was the story. You can argue as much as you like about it being predictable but I think that's the point. You are supposed to be able to work out a lot of what Harry Angel doesn't just before the revelatory twist and that is what makes it all worthwhile.

I used to be firmly of the opinion that the ending meant that "Angel Heart" wasn't a film that could ever be enjoyed twice. As much as it's a forerunner of "Identity", "Shutter Island", "The Ward" and even "Skjult" (which I reviewed earlier last week), all those films contain huge plot holes which you can't tie-up no matter how many times you rewatch them. "Angel Heart" has far fewer inconsistencies within its internal logic which means that you can go back and answer any questions that spring to mind although, if you pay close enough attention in the first place, you will never have to.

Undoubtedly there were a couple of surreal moments which completely jumped the shark as far as my enjoyment of any movie goes. Anything that disrupts the flow of a narrative such as dream sequences, flashbacks, hallucinations or any other weirdness really annoys me to the point where I mentally just switch off and, more often than not, eject the DVD and never bother with it again. All the blood dripping through the ceiling during the once infamous Lisa Bonet sex scene was probably the worst of these crimes but I kept watching for obvious reasons. The little boy's eyes glowing at the end were also rather unnecessary but I suppose you have to bear in mind the time that the film was made. "Angel Heart" may be set 1955 but it's still very much a product of the 1980s.

One thing that really stood out for me was all the racial stuff. Being from Britain means that I don't really come from a culture with quite the same history (although you could argue about some of the more dubious Imperial practices) and so that aspect of "Angel Heart" has always been alien to me. On a very personal level, I only met one black person in my entire life before coming to America and he was a medical doctor. Seeing this slice of America's past, albeit fictionalised, is just weird especially as, although the laws about racial equality have changed, I have noticed that the attitudes in real life largely remain the same. I'm not going to digress too much on this subject however or I'll be writing this review for days.

Changing the subject slightly, I really didn't find Lisa Bonet all that attractive but, curiously, I did think Charlotte Rampling looked incredible and I wish that more had been done with her character. It's not that "Angel Heart" needed any more sex in it but there were a couple of erotic moments between Harry Angel and Margaret Krusemark which should have been developed further especially in light of the big secret revealed at the end. The whole thing could probably have been made far more tragic by a different director and, with a remake rumoured, I expect it will be.

Anyway, I'm putting "Angel Heart" back in The Vault not because it's a fantastic horror film but because, in spite of some "Twilight Zone" qualities, it was quite original at the time. Obviously, the "Hellraiser" sequels (particularly V, VI and VII) have redone this story to death now and contain all the goriness that "Angel Heart" itself would have benefited from and it's interesting (and probably not entirely coincidental) that the original "Hellraiser" came out in 1987 as well. Stories about pacts with demons or the devil are far older than even the story of "Faust" but, in the late 80s, well, I'll leave it to your own memories to work out exactly why they became popular again.

I recommend "Angel Heart" to three kinds of people - Mickey Rourke fans, lovers of movies about voodoo, and general film noir enthusiasts. I don't recommend it to a modern audience (who have the same attention deficit disorder as Harry Angel appears to have at times) or to anyone expecting a real chiller.

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