Lionsgate // 1987 // 113 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // June 22nd, 2004
"Death is everywhere these days, Johnny."
Back when Alan Parker's Angel Heart was released in 1987, it was swarmed with controversy -- it seemed like all of America simultaneously gasped, "What is Denise Huxtable doing?" Now, thanks to Lions Gate (formerly Artisan), we'll have our answers -- care of their long-overdue special edition of the film, complete with a gorgeous new transfer and some super extras.
New York City, 1955: Private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke, Diner, Spun) does his job, keeps to himself, and doesn't go looking for trouble. Trouble, however, finds him when a new client (Robert DeNiro, Taxi Driver) puts Angel on the case to track down a missing singer, Johnny Favorite. It's not long before Harry's contacts for the case begin to be mysteriously murdered, and his case seemingly takes a turn towards the supernatural -- including meeting Epiphany (Lisa Bonet, The Cosby Show, High Fidelity), a beautiful girl who may have ties to the voodoo underworld. The body count continues to rise and the case gets darker and darker until Harry learns the secret of Johnny Favorite -- a secret he could never have prepared for.
The 1980s were an interesting time for horror flicks. The decade was arguably the biggest for the genre since the '50s, when drive-in movies and B-pictures ruled the scene. Franchises like the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street thrived, and effects-heavy "splatter" films became the order of the day. Part of the reason was the popularity and availability of the VCR -- suddenly, smaller genre films had a guaranteed built-in audience. This led to a horror culture that I'll call the era of the Fangoria fan -- usually young, usually male, and interested solely in bigger death counts and better, gorier kills.
Enter into this scene Alan Parker's Angel Heart in 1987. Unlike most (notice I say most) horror films of the time, Angel Heart is deadly serious about its material and utterly realistic in its approach. That may be because the film doesn't present itself as a typical horror film; it desperately wants to be a straightforward detective story, but its horror trappings can't help but slowly seep in. Like its main character's slow descent into Hell, the film itself begins to burn -- it grows darker, moodier, bloodier, and scarier as it progresses.
Did this approach work against the film when it was released? Possibly. The Fangoria crowd most likely found the film to be too slow and methodical -- its payoffs aren't as immediate as a machete to the skull of a coed. Mainstream audiences may have found the film too dark or Gothic, or its resolution too bleak, to be completely satisfying. I find that kind of funny, too -- for my money, the "twist" ending of Angel Heart is far better than that of The Sixth Sense, and that ending drove the film to some major box office. I know a lot of people love that ending, and while it's clever, it still feels like a twist for twist's sake (I know, I know -- I've heard all of the arguments to the contrary). Angel Heart's ending, on the other hand, grows logically and organically out of the story -- there is no other way for Harry's story to end.
The only thing about the film that garnered much attention when it was released -- and, sadly, what it is still best known for to this day -- is the sex scene between Rourke and Lisa Bonet's character, Epiphany. At the time, Bonet was known to America solely for her work on the much-loved and family-friendly The Cosby Show, so it's no surprise that her participation in the scene created a considerable controversy (even TV dad Bill Cosby got in some digs in the press). The scene, which originally garnered the film the dreaded X rating, actually is pretty disturbing even today. Its graphic imagery of sex and violence (the two characters have rough sex as blood begins to rain down on them) is a violation -- of Epiphany, of our trust in Harry (a character we genuinely like is suddenly showing his darkest side...no jokes, please), and ultimately of the audience's previous ideas of sex on film. Though once labeled as exploitative, the scene is actually essential when viewed in the context of the film.
Everything about the movie works. It effortlessly mixes two of my favorite genres -- the horror film and the film noir / detective story (without any sort of obvious splice) -- and functions beautifully as both. Director Alan Parker was working in peak form; I'd call Angel Heart the pinnacle of his winning streak that ended with The Commitments (it breaks my heart to see the work he's doing today -- we will not speak of The Life of David Gale). He approaches the main thrust of the story with tremendous subtlety and delicacy, but isn't above inserting some appropriate grand flourishes. Watch the film once and you'll feel Parker has a penchant for sweeping imagery and major visual metaphors; watch it a second time and you'll see he's actually giving the viewer clues into the heart of the story.
Mickey Rourke, as the central character of the film, is in every scene -- had his performance been miscalculated, he would have dragged the film down with him. Fortunately, his work as Harry Angel is pretty brilliant. Rourke has long been one of my favorite actors -- which might help to explain my unnatural affection for Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man -- and Harry Angel is my favorite of all his performances. It's too bad he kind of pissed his career away, eventually taking third billing to the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dennis Rodman; I'm convinced that had he continued along the track on which he'd started, Rourke would be doing work at the level of Sean Penn today. If you don't believe me, go back and watch some of his earlier films -- or just watch Angel Heart.
The new "Special Edition" of the film that Lions Gate has put out is vastly superior to Artisan's previously released effort. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is gorgeous, making the most of the film's almost monochromatic palette early on (on the disc's supplementary material, Parker talks about how he wanted to make a "black-and-white film in color") and bringing new beauty to the New Orleans shift, when the photography warms up. The colors, especially in the second half, are deep and vibrant, and detail is treated with great care. The movie simply looks great.
The new audio presentation is outstanding as well. Both the 2.0 stereo and the Dolby 5.1 tracks are quite good, but I prefer the 5.1 track. Director Parker paid great attention to the film's soundtrack, and the 5.1 mix does the better job of representing it -- listen closely and you'll finally hear the whispers of "Harry" and "Johnny" throughout the film.
The extras on the disc are somewhat uneven. The collection of voodoo documentaries is skippable (its inclusion actually overstates the importance of the voodoo element found in the film itself), as is a series of original promotional materials from 1987. I also prefer the Alan Parker interviews to his feature-length commentary track; he provides much of the same information, but in a far more succinct manner.
The best extras on the disc center on Mickey Rourke. First up is a new half-hour interview with the actor, which basically walks through his career chronologically (though it drops out between his chosen "hiatus," when he returned to boxing for a time, and picks up around his comeback). While he's become a garish freakshow of a man -- all wristbands and sunglasses and cigarettes, all the while stroking his miniature dog on his lap (I was surprised to learn that particularly eccentric character trait of his character in Once Upon a Time in Mexico was based on Rourke in real life and not the other way around) -- Rourke is refreshingly honest and candid about his experiences in the film business. He discusses what it was like to work on specific films, and is quite forthcoming about his opinions of directors (calling Barbet Schroeder, his director on Barfly, "a prick") and fellow actors (Eric Roberts is vastly underrated, according to Rourke).
Where I found myself quite disappointed was on the scene-specific video commentary Rourke recorded for the disc. Not just because it's too short -- it only covers a few of the film's key scenes -- but because of what Rourke has to say about working on Angel Heart. He took the film for two reasons: to work with Parker and to pay for his house. He willingly confesses that he was never terribly drawn to or fond of the script; he basically just showed up and said his lines. While I appreciate that he's not horribly pretentious about "the process," I'm so fond of his performance in the film that I had long developed romantic notions about what must have gone into bringing the character of Harry Angel to the screen. Boy, was I wrong.
Angel Heart is a brilliant example of everyone involved with a film -- cast, director, writer, cinematographer, art director, et al -- working at the top of their game. It's a masterful blend of genres and combines a knockout story with exceptional style; the result is one of the very best horror films of the '80s.
Have you been paying attention? Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* New Alan Parker DVD Introduction
* New Alan Parker Interview
* New Mickey Rourke Interview
* Feature Commentary by Alan Parker
* Scene-Specific Commentary by Mickey Rourke
* Voodoo Truths: Voodoo Documentary Collection
* Original Promotional Materials
* Original Behind the Scenes Featurette
* Original Promotional Alan Parker Interviews
* Original Promotional Lisa Bonet Interview
* Bonus Trailers