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Angel Heart

*****
1987

‘…an essential purchase for fans of all the considerable talents involved, and for horror aficionados in general…’

I was still a teenager when I saw Alan Parker’s 1987 genre-bending horror/detective story; just old enough to beat the 18 certificate. The film ran for several months at my local Odeon; I returned over and over again to watch the print turn ragged on the screen.  Parker’s film caught my imagination, so to see a restored blu-ray pressed decades later is a welcome opportunity to revisit a well-thumbed, well-loved text. The story is simple in synopsis but surprising in execution. Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is a down-at-heel private eye hired by Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to investigate a missing singer by the name of Johnny Favourite. Those unlucky enough to cross Angel’s path end up dead; Angel senses he’s being set up, but it’s only when he travels to New Orleans that the gumshoe begins to realise that supernatural forces are at work, and he’s little more than a pawn in the game.

Based on William Hjortsberg’s book Falling Angel, Parker shifted the action largely from NYC to New Orleans, and also changed the time-period and a few crucial details; elements from the book like the back-street magic show are dropped, despite being remarkably cinematic in their own right. Parker’s use of mirrors, fans and blood is very much his own pictorial style, and while audiences weren’t sure of Angel Heart at the time, it’s clearly a misunderstood work that had a influence on Christopher Nolan and others. Michael Seresin’s photography is the first thing to notice here; poor DVD prints haven’t helped the film’s reputation, but this blu-ray looks as good as if not better than the original; it’s hard to think of another film that looks as moist as this, which detailed textures to snow, paper, clothes, sweat and blood. The result is a film that’s vivid and atmospheric, with dream-like interruptions scored to the sound of a beating heart, telling a story with an outrageous twist ending that’s tricky to fully explain in detail.

Parker’s wry commentary track starts by discussing the problems of directing cats; it’s also implied that herding De Niro and Rourke through a number of scenes together wasn’t much easier. De Niro makes something iconic of his devilish character, but it’s Rourke that’s the revelation here. It’s not surprising to hear that Rourke couldn’t act the same scene the same way twice; his work feels spontaneous, and there’s an edge that makes Angel feel both larger than life and vulnerable.

Some of the other extras on this re-issue suggest that Parker was prepared to bend the rules of voodoo in order to get what he wanted from his New Orleans shoot; such comments are interesting, but don’t detract from the film’s power. In the classic notion of drama, Angel’s investigation of his case is a search for himself, and a discovery of an unpleasant truth about human nature. Parker’s film may have been better known for its sex scene than it’s dramatic content at the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, Angel Heart is an essential purchase for fans of all the considerable talents involved, and for horror aficionados in general.

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  1. It’s a really odd movie, one that kind of lingers. I’m still not sure about the ending, but I like the atmosphere and creepiness, and the lack of morality. And you’re right – moist, sweaty, humid, a bit like Louisiana itself. I was never entirely sure about the basis of some of the voodoo elements so it’s interesting to learn that Parker bent the rules. I wonder how the few who still practice it feel about the film. There’s a fascinating Voodoo museum in New Orleans, definitely worth a visit if you ever are in the Crescent City.

  2. This freaked me out when I was a young teen. It has been years since I last watched it. I remember it being very atmospheric, creepy, compelling, and shocking. Definitely time for a re-watch. I will look out for this release.

    • It stands up well now, really visually strong movie; your reaction matches mine!

  3. Italian poster – that’s a biggie. Saw this at the time and knocked out. Some fabulous images. Seen it a few times since but might check it out again.

  4. I had the poster for this hanging up in my residence at first year in university. I won it as a prize from the student newspaper for guessing all the winners of that year’s Academy Awards.

    Something you probably didn’t know!

    Great movie too.

    • I love this movie, and have a huge Italian poster for it. The book is great too.

      What were your guesses? Erik vin Stroheim? Wings? Sunrise? Cimmaron?

              • someone I follow put up a trailer for Kenobi and was all excited. I guess some people love Star Wars no matter what.

                Makes me wonder just how much they’re paying McGregor to reprise his role.

                    • No, she’s one of a handful of Star Wars character who made any impression over the last four decades. Kenobi was ok in the first film, but the prequels were awful and I can’t see why anyone would be excited to reprise such inert characters. And nothing will happen anyway…

                    • Made an impression on YOU maybe, Mr Star Wars hater.

                      Something will happen. Any love for a well remembered character will wither and die on the vine 🙁

                      I’d go on but I’m afraid I might project an aura of bitterness and negativity and I don’t want to do that on this most excellent post of a movie I will never watch 😉

                    • Movies are a matter of taste, and everyone is entitled to their own. I try to keep things positive, but like to throw in a bit of negativity to avoid being a Pollyanna.

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