Monday, 1 September 2014

Halloween Horror: Angel Heart

When I talk to people about horror movies, this is a title that always seems to come up, so it should come as no surprise that it seemed an obvious choice when I decided to start Halloween Horror. Out of the horror films I've seen, Angel Heart, directed by Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Fame, Pink Floyd The Wall, Angela's Ashes) is quite possibly one of the most disturbing. It is also a truly unique horror film, as I have yet to find anything even remotely similar in nature, which makes it all the more complex, intelligent, and above all, terrifying.

Mickey Rourke plays the role of Harry Angel, a Sam Spade-esque private eye and everyday man living in 1950's Brooklyn. He receives a new case from a mysterious client named Louis Cypher. The case involves Harry investigating the disappearance of a singer named Johnny Favorite, who has not been heard from in twelve years and who apparently owes Cypher for something he did to help his career. He agrees to take the case, but things quickly spiral out of control.

One by one, people who knew Johnny begin turning up dead, and all the evidence points toward Harry as the killer. As the bodies pile up and Harry faces the electric chair, he finds himself in a desperate struggle to track down the real killer and clear his name. The investigation takes on various twists and turns, and without giving away the reveal, it becomes clear that there is something much darker at play.

If that description sounded more like the plot of a classical film noir than a horror movie, that hardly comes as a surprise. Angel Heart is clearly influenced by the film noir of the 40's and 50's and in some ways functions as a tribute similar to Chinatown. Unlike Chinatown, however, Angel Heart is very much a horror story at its core, even if it uses a classical detective story as a means to unravel that horror.

It is a very different kind of horror film, though. There is gore when it is needed but for the bulk of the movie the horror is purely psychological, and comes in large part from the general atmosphere. The opening scene alone has a very bleak tone to it, but as the film progresses there is an increasingly overwhelming sense of dread, all preparing you for the reveal of the true horror at the very end. When we finally get our questions answered in the finale, we are plunged into the realm of psychological horror the likes of which I don't think I have ever seen in anything else.

The acting is amazing. Mickey Rourke might just have one of the best performances of his career as Harry Angel, and Robert De Niro steals the show as Louis Cypher, who manages to be super-eerie just doing an impressin of Martin Scorsese. In fact, De Niro was supposedly so good at the role that even Alan Parker got uncomfortable when shooting his scenes and allowed him to direct himself. Also curiously thrown into the mix is Lisa Bonet coming off of The Cosby Show, who also has quite possibly one of the most disturbingly surreal sex scenes ever put on film.

In addition to the atmosphere, there is a fair bit of disturbing surrealism throughout Angel Heart. Most of it makes sense by the time you get to the end, but even then this may be a rare case where what you imagine is nowhere near as terrifying as what the film eventually delivers on a purely psychological level. A lot of the fear comes from the little things, where their meaning only becomes clear when you finally learn what's really going on (this movie manages to make the simple act of eating a hard-boiled egg seem disturbing).

Now I imagine like me, a lot of my readers are a bit jaded by the lack of decent modern horror movies. There's been a few exceptions here and there but for the most part we've been getting nothing but generic Clich├ęd slashers and not a whole lot of intelligent horror stories. Still, that seems to be a common pitfall with horror, which makes the ones that are actually good stand out all the more.

Angel Heart is one of those few really good ones, a truly unique horror film of a very different sort. If you're fed up with modern Hollywood mucking up the horror genre, I would strongly recommend you seek out this 1987 masterpiece. You want true horror, I guarantee, without giving anything away, that this film will deliver, and I still have yet to see anything like it at all. Alan Parker's Angel Heart is one that I would definitely consider a must-see for any true horror fan.


  1. Very good start to things. Angel Heart is indeed a strong horror movie. It is nothing, if not disturbing. BTW, that Lisa Bonet scene caused a major uproar back when the movie came out because of her squeaky clean Cosby image. Sadly, the media focused on that much more than they did on the film as a whole. Lots of people also dismissed it at the time as being just too weird. Glad you appreciate this one.

    1. I'd heard about the controversy that came from Lisa Bonet starring in Angel Heart, but I never realized it was that huge a thing back then.

      Thanks for commenting. I've got a good list of other horror films so I should have more coming.

    2. Yeah, part of it was that the film was initially given an X rating (before the days of NC-17) which was changed to R after some of that sex scene was cut. And you know how the media sensationalizes everything so the X rating was, of course, automatically equated with porn and the talk was like a Cosby kid did an "adult" flick. Silly, in hindsight, but that's what went on.

  2. Child's eyes glowing freaked me out! This is an excellent start to this Horror month. Mickey Roarke was at his best and Robert De Niro was creepy to say the least. Lisa Bonet was fired by Bill Cosby after appearing in this film because Bill Cosby didn't want her attached to a family wholesome show when she also played someone, um, different in this film. The media hype hurt the film and it was being talked about on Nightline-it was sad that an excellent film got this bad press. I also found it funny (and not in the ha-ha way) that Lisa Bonet's career went bye-bye very soon after.