Lionsgate // 1987 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // November 24th, 2009
You know what they say about slugs. They always leave slime in their tracks.
Somewhere in between noir and horror lies Angel Heart. While it never quite reaches the heart of either genre, it is nonetheless something all its own. Director Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning) created something violent, funny, sexy, and damn near insane in this underrated gem. Now that Lionsgate has finally released the film on Blu-ray, how does it measure up in high-def?
Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke, Wild Orchid) is your average workaday private detective in 1950s Brooklyn. Never wanting to put himself in danger, he takes only the simplest of cases. When a lawyer hires him to find the whereabouts of an ex-jazz singer named Johnny Favorite, Harry thinks it's a simple missing persons case, but quickly finds himself mixed up with voodoo, a pile of bodies, and a man named Lou Cyphre (Robert DeNiro, Raging Bull) -- the money behind the job, who's saying much less than he actually knows.
Judge Patrick Bromley wrote an excellent review of Angel Heart for Lionsgate's 2004 Special Edition release, so read that for a comprehensive breakdown of the film. I agree with essentially everything in Judge Bromley's review, but my praise is a little less effusive than his. I have a lot of love for Angel Heart, but there are things about the film that I just don't get. None of it detracts much from the pleasure I take in watching it, but the problems do keep it from being an all-time favorite.
Parker's mixture of noir and horror is an interesting concoction, but he never goes far enough with either. It's hard to fault the director. The clues Parker places -- visually in the set design and cinematography; aurally in the sound design -- make it clear he got the results he wanted. The film has all the trappings of a noir with its tough-talking detective, hard-boiled femme fatales, and murder frame-up. Filled with high contrast lighting and sharp camera angles, the stylistic approach is certainly reminiscent of the genre. It misses, however, in the denouement, which plays out as though Angel Heart has been a horror film all along. As a detective film, even in the most outlandish entries, I expect a somewhat realistic conclusion. Here, we get something even more fantastical and it's somewhat dissatisfying.
Likewise, as a horror film, it works on many levels, but still leaves something to be desired. Horror is all about suspension of disbelief. If the suspense that makes the genre satisfying isn't properly built, the whole thing comes crumbling down. There are visual and audio cues all over the place which, on repeated viewings, make the the horror aspects very interesting. The film is built up as a noir, though, and the suspense comes from the mystery of Johnny Favorite, not the fear of death. Especially on first viewing, when we realize that this is indeed a horror film, it seems like Parker has just pulled the rug out from under us. Even today, knowing where to look, the change feels like it comes from out of the blue.
None of it matters all that much, as Angel Heart is a great film. Parker hits all the right notes in the story, builds a compelling mystery and -- even if he does pull a bait-and-switch in his turn to horror -- finishes with a fantastically shot, wildly gory bloodbath that leaves me laughing in disbelief. The performances are all spot-on. Like Judge Bromley, I'm a lifelong supporter of Mickey Rourke and he does some of some of his best work here. Though he claims to have not cared for the role at any point, he certainly does appear to have enjoyed himself. Lisa Bonet (The Cosby Show) puts in one of history's sexiest performances, although I wonder if Bill Cosby's outrage at her role was as much due to the racial trouble in the voodoo part of the plot, especially since it was not native to the original novel. Though Robert DeNiro has an absolutely awful character name, he takes to the Cyphre role with relish.
I was hoping for something really special in this Blu-ray release, but it was not to be. Lionsgate hit it big with their Special Edition, a huge upgrade from the original Artisan release, but this high-definition edition is only marginally better. The 1080p image looks very good, but in comparison, this version still has a lot of the graininess of the previous version. There is an increased sharpness in the darker scenes, but it's only slightly better.
The audio performs a little better. The DTS-HD 5.1 sound mix does a very good job with the intricate sound design. The little calls of "Johnny" and "Harry" are as subtle as ever, but nicely mixed into the surround speakers. Everything comes through loud and clear, making good work of all channels and doing proper justice to one of the most important parts of this film.
The selection of extras is interesting, if not altogether satisfying. Everything has been ported over from the Special Edition release, but the features have been pared down to only the best of what was there. The audio commentary and extended interview with Alan Parker are both fairly good, but they say the same things in longer and shorter versions. The scene-specific commentary from Mickey Rourke is where he reveals his motivation (or lack thereof) in playing Harry Angel. Better is his extended interview, in which he discusses his entire career and strokes his dog Loki (may he rest in peace). If you already own the Special Edition and like the voodoo material or the original promotional interviews, you may not want to switch out your old copy. The transfer isn't that much better and Lionsgate deemed those features extraneous. If you still have the original Artisan release, you'll definitely want to upgrade. The transfer is superior in comparison and the extras are well worth your time.
My tiny quibbles with Angel Heart are minor compared to how much I enjoy watching the film. With every viewing, there's something new that I see. From start to finish, I love every second of Alan Parker's masterpiece. The Blu-ray transfer is not all that it could have been, but it is still slightly recommended as an upgrade.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Scene Commentary