Thirty years of horror: Angel Heart (1987)

Chris: In a clear and steady hand, Harry Angel writes the name and adds a question mark. He underlines it twice. Shortly after, Angel meets the man who belongs to the name. A lawyer pronounces the man’s name clearly, twice even. There’s no mistaking the cadence of the first and last name, and we’ll hear it again before long. The man has a strange appearance. There’s a familiar symbol on his ring. He speaks bemusedly of contracts and collateral. “I have a feeling we’ve met before.” Within 10 minutes we’ve figured out who the man is and we have a good idea of who the detective might be, and what their relationship to one another is.

After the jump, Mephistopheles is such a mouthful in Manhattan.

Chris: Whenever I talk about Angel Heart with someone who’s already seen it, inevitably they’ll mention that they figured out the “twist” in those first 10 minutes. I hear such things and struggle to not condescend. We all figured that reveal out. It isn’t terribly difficult. While Angel Heart pretends to present itself as an intricate mystery, the audience is shown all the cards in the envelope almost from the start. If the ending surprises you, perhaps you weren’t paying attention.

Tom: I’m so glad you mention this. The audience knowing before the characters is a fundamental part of this sort of mystery (I have no idea why this is in a list of horror films, but far be it from me to call out another man’s genre gymnastics!). No one cares that you, the audience, have it figured out. That’s not the point. This isn’t Agatha Christie or M. Night Shyamalan . It’s Oedipus Rex. The point is watching the protagonist figure it out. It’s not a puzzle. You’re just along for the ride.

Chris: Alan Parker must have known he’d set himself a difficult task here. The William Hjortsberg novel the movie is based upon (written under an NEA grant, so cringe away, Religious Right) goes to epic lengths to obfuscate Harry Angel’s identity. To fit the story into a two-hour movie, Parker would have no such resources. In order to adapt the book to film, he’d have to cut out all the backgrounding and exposition from the book.

And so Parker does an audacious thing: he decides to go full ahead and give up that ending to us right from the start. He’s going to make an entirely different movie from the book. The film won’t be about the mystery; in fact, the mystery becomes a maguffin. No, this film will be about Harry Angel’s self-realization and subsequent fall into hell. It is a movie where the knowledge uncovered and gained profits the detective nothing. The more fruit of that tree he eats, the further into perdition he falls. The tension and conflict for the audience becomes one where we wonder if Angel will come to realization soon enough to perhaps save himself. As this is a beautifully lensed film noir, we can probably guess that answer too.

Tom: Parker’s indulgent production is, in my opinion, one of the few things that holds up here. He loves muted colors in dark interiors, whether they’re Midnight Express’ Turkish prison or Fame’s school of the arts in New York. It serves this particular descent into hell well. There aren’t many noir movies — that aren’t set in Los Angeles — that should be in color. But this is one of them. The other thing that holds up is Rourke’s incredible charm. My favorite scene is him flirting with the redheaded nurse at the asylum. At this point, early on in the movie, it’s entirely possible that Angel Heart has the production values and star power of Chinatown. Unfortunately, we’ve still got an hour and a half to go.

Chris: If the movie is actually about Harry Angel’s fall from grace, it also is about the decline and fall of the man who inhabits that character. Mickey Rourke was a huge name in cinema in 1987, but he was already dangerously adrift, nearly bankrupt and destitute for his hard living when Parker cast him as the detective here. It’s fascinating to watch Rourke fill the screen with his manic presence; he’s clearly a guy at the far end of his tether, about to become completely unmoored and unhinged.

It fits the character and film beautifully. I love the way he gives the word “crooner” three syllables. I adore the way he crushes out a smoke in a crowded ashtray. The way he walks has a slouchy, uneven, perfect grace to it. There’s a reason an abusive, buffoonish jackass like Mickey Rourke attracted some of the most beautiful women on the planet at one point, and this is it. He makes his thrift store wardrobe work, even. When we first see Harry Angel, he looks like an unmade bed (with a belt, pants, and coat all looking five sizes too big). This is peak Angel, though; things are about to go downhill for him.

First, though, is an ascent. The film builds the story by sending Harry Angel into Harlem, upstate New York, and Coney Island. These scenes could all be parts of a story machine, blandly turning to get us from point A to B. Thankfully, Alan Parker isn’t interested in bland. If he has a virtue as a director, an aversion to bland is it. Thus, we get the old doctor’s house, which looks for all the world like a place where even ghosts would fear to haunt. We get the magnificent bit at a deserted Coney Island, filmed as though Parker had been watching a Terrence Malick film festival prior to this.

As things build, the bodies start to stack up. We’re left just a bit in the dark as to what’s exactly happening here, and perhaps by intention. Instead, Parker cuts in a weird montage of repeated scenes. A figure in a black dress and hat, face obscured. Steps that go down or up in a spiral. Fans. The creepiest part of this quick cut surrealist montage for me is when the side of a darkened tenement is shown. Everything is grey, save one lit window (with a fan in it, naturally). There’s maybe a muffled shout of pain or alarm or both that we hear. That’s it. That scene haunted my dreams for weeks after I first saw Angel Heart. In my mind I picture unspeakable, horrific things happening behind that lit window. It’s only a suggestion by the movie, but it’s one that is terrifying in implication.

Tom: I can’t decide whether the wheel of fate imagery is too heavy handed, but I think that’s because I was distracted by the way Robert DeNiro applied his Lee Press On Nails to a hard boiled egg while delivering an aside about how eggs represent the soul. Frankly, there’s a little too much Rupert Pupkin in this Satan. But for the most part, I’m okay with Parker’s imagery, given that this is a combination of Greek tragedy, film noir, and — okay, I guess I concede — supernatural horror. But you’re right that the exterior of the tenement building with the one lit window is a fantastic recurring image. Parker makes it clear this image in Important and, in the end, it certainly is.

Chris: When the action swings south to New Orleans, things build for a bit. Parker spares no care in filming here, either. The French Quarter and bayou have rarely seemed more temptingly decadent and dangerous. The body count goes up, too as Harry receives more parts of the story. For him, the information he learns confuses the mystery even more to him; he’s chasing an idea he doesn’t want to even consider. For us, though, we’re putting the pieces of a corrupt life together, realizing our hero is no hero at all.

Tom: What kind of hero has a “thing about chickens”. I kept thinking of Indiana Jones’ aversion to snakes. But with chickens.

Chris: I love it when a movie offers up a referential turning point the way Angel Heart does. It’s in the dialogue between Angel and the two detectives (how hilariously profane is Pruitt Taylor Vince here?) who come to visit him. As they’re leaving, Harry asks if they watch the Mickey Mouse Club. Why? Because “It’s Wednesday; it’s ‘Anything Can Happen’ day.” From that point on, the film commences a whirlwind rollercoaster ride to its inevitable conclusion. Harry Angel is beaten, bitten, and soaked. Somehow he manages to leave more bodies behind and engage in a very hot sex scene with Lisa Bonet that almost got the movie an NC-17 rating (either for the blood or the later implication of familial relations). The final moments of the movie belong to Mickey Rourke. When the “reveal” finally happens, it’s a reveal really to his character only. As the truth comes crashing down around Harry Angel, we can easily picture Rourke having his own reckoning, staring with with whiskey-shot eyes into the mirror. “I know who I am…I know who I am…”

Tom: To me, Angel Heart has more in common with Adrian Lyne thrillers than horror. In fact, Lyne will be along in a few years with Jacob’s Ladder, which is a far more surreal, snappier, and more conventionally horror-themed treatment of the same subject matter: who am I and what has happened to me and why is the world suddenly so hellish and when will I be doomed by the final reveal?

Chris: I acknowledge that Angel Heart doesn’t work for a lot of viewers. Alan Parker’s fatal flaw as a director might be his tendency to excess. Working in this noir/horror milieu, that trait almost becomes a virtue. Sure, the film has moments that are at least an homage to Chinatown, if not downright derivative. It may not be creepy, spooky or scary to some, although it was, and still is, to me. It isn’t until almost the final scene where the excess finally catches up in a hugely clumsy misstep with the baby and the demon eyes. They’re unnecessary and goofy. The movie doesn’t need them, and it’s as if in the final bit Parker decided to hedge his bets.

Tom: These days, I would have assumed that was added in response to focus groups whining that the movie wasn’t scary enough. To people who weren’t scared of chickens.

Chris: Even so, this for me is an amazing and brilliant film, with both difficult director and star at their respective heights.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)