For some reason I appear to be out of sync with the films I’ve picked for Halloween and it always pains me when I simply say “eh it was okay” about a film in general. Angel Heart came highly recommended to me from friends who said “You love Faust-like movies, you’ll love this.” I love a good film about the Devil and selling one’s soul but they can be incredibly hit or miss. As much as I wanted to love Angel Heart for what it sets out to accomplish, I just never connected with it. Sure it’s an interesting hodgepodge of film noir and horror, creating a potboiler story with heavy stakes, but the film tries too hard to be controversial and dark leaving you with a group of characters that you connect with only on a surface level. The leads are good, particularly Robert De Niro, but I just couldn’t figure out why this film is such a cult classic?
Set in the 1950s private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is tasked with hunting down a crooner named Johnny Favorite. His employer is the mysterious Louis Cypher (De Niro) who alleges that Favorite broke a contract with him and needs to be brought back in order to settle his debts. Harry starts tracking down associates of Favorite’s but becomes implicated in murder when the associates start turning up dead.
I’m not sure if I’m talking out of my hat here but I consider director Alan Parker to be a director whose films are either great or just boring; they’re also highly divisive. Case in point, I adore his adaptation of Evita although I know countless people who hate it. On the other hand I didn’t care for Fame, another Parker project, that many consider a classic. I figured that knowing this would put me at odds with Angel Heart; I’d either love it or hate it. Interestingly, I didn’t hate it, I just don’t understand why it’s given unanimous praise. I enjoyed what Parker, who directed and wrote the script, set out to accomplish with the film. He brings in elements of film noir, detective stories, and horror to create a film with an intricate story and gruesome set pieces. Within the first few minutes you see the corruption with the world of religion as Angel goes to meet Cypher in a Baptist church. The preacher is manipulating the parishioners quite openly, to give him money. In another room we see a woman on her hands and knees washing blood off the walls after a member killed himself. Obviously the idea of Heaven is a place people only dream of in order to escape the Hell on Earth. The dialogue is eloquent and filled with noir lines to set it up as a mystery/crime novel. I’d like to think if Mickey Spillane combined with Dan Brown (don’t hate me for that reference I’m just citing him in terms of religious writing) this is what would be the end result.
With that, I just found the story to be predictable; maybe because I’ve seen too many Devil-centric films. From the minute you meet Cypher you know he’s not a good name (especially with his name easily pointing you in the direction the film will take). Around the 30 minute mark, once Angel starts questioning people and starts having flashbacks, you should be formulating a theory that involves him being Favorite in some way. By the hour mark with only 50 minutes left, I had figured out the end game entirely. The dialogue and the story move forward rapidly enough but the ending hits you in the face from a mile away.
I may not have found the plot to be special but the acting is fantastic, particularly from De Niro. Robert De Niro’s given legendary performances throughout this career and I’d put this up there with the greats. Louis Cypher is cold, elegant, and frightening, the perfect picture of the Devil. If you don’t think the guy is the incarnation of evil just look at his manicured nails! Seriously, you never trust a man with manicured nails. Cypher is a man who doesn’t have to raise his voice to make his evil shine through. In one scene he’s calmly peeling hardboiled eggs and that says everything! The darkness in his character comes through as he slams the egg on the table and calmly starts to peel it. In that instance the egg isn’t simply an egg but a person whose layers are slowly being peeled away. When Louis finally takes a bite it almost invokes a response in the reader, that he’s biting into Harry’s soul. De Niro’s performance takes on added weight upon the knowledge he based it off Martin Scorsese. I think I might be terrified of Scorsese now! De Niro’s performance is so earth shattering despite only having about 30 minutes of screen time and I think that’s being generous. I’d equate his performance on par with Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs in terms doing a lot with a little.
The other stars commit to their roles, Rourke in particular. I’ve actually never seen Mickey Rourke pre-now and I must admit the man has chops. He is the best incarnation of Ralph Meeker we have in terms of portraying the hard-boiled detective of the film noir period. He says the dialogue with a grit and rasp that makes you listen. He can be charming and suave in order to get what he wants. He’s a man of shifting personas even before meeting Cypher as his role as a PI requires him to carry business cards with numerous identities. As he slowly gets beaten down in having people turn up dead, his possible role in the murders, and his continued association with Cypher it enters into his physical appearance. He starts to become haggard and run down and Rourke makes you feel that. By the film’s final scene, when Angel has figured out his relationship to Bonet and who he is he’s obviously been through a worse Hell than the one waiting for him.
The only weak link in the chain is Lisa Bonet as Epiphany. The girl who is constantly referred to in terms of her physical appearance. I can’t say Bonet is a bad actress, the character is vastly underwritten. Epiphany is the seventeen (keep that in mind) year old daughter of one of Johnny Favorite’s lovers. We meet the girl going about her day. She has a child of her own and appears to be living a harsh life. And yet Parker sexualizes her at every turn; making her clothing see-through and constantly having her nude. For a girl meant to be a child (I know it’s the 50s but still) the film doesn’t portray her as such. Also, any comment made to her is in reference to her appearance. About the sixth time Angel points out a feature of Epiphany’s that’s “beautiful” you just start to believe he wants in her pants. I wish the film had written her better to make her stand out. As it stands she’s just the girl of the picture.
Angel Heart came out with controversy upon release due to its rating. It had originally garnered an X rating (pre-NC 17) due to a graphic sex scene. There are rumors that this film is the reason star Lisa Bonet left the Cosby Show (although that’s never been confirmed). With that the film doesn’t appear to be particularly controversial. The sex scene in question is graphic but nothing that hasn’t been seen in hard-R rated films. I did find the dripping blood element to be overkill and just a reason to have Rourke and Bonet naked and covered in blood. It felt like a gimmick for lack of a better word.
Again, I appreciate what Parker and crew set out to accomplish. The film noir is followed faithfully down to using the whole “man with a new face” angle that’s always fun in a noir. I even enjoyed the score that’s reliant on ambient sounds like someone tinkling on a piano or children’s feet in the street. I just didn’t understand why this is so revered, it’s predictable. The acting is good but the story is easily figured out and gimmicky. I’d consider a rewatch somewhere down the line (I tend to change my views on certain films during a second viewing) but as it stands now Angel Heart is simply “okay.” I didn’t hate it but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Type of Horror: Devil, Gore
Fright Meter: 2
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.