I should have watched Angel Heart years ago.
I'm not sure why I didn't. I bought the DVD used in about 2007, right around the time that it started being really hard to sell used DVDs. A pre-owned media store had opened in the neighborhood and was selling stuff really cheaply. They didn't have a great selection -- actually, it looked like they were selling the overstock from other similar stores. They probably had twenty copies each of Bringing Down the House and Half Baked, and a million copies of whatever Outkast album featured the song "Hey Ya!" And they also had a few good movies sandwiched between all the repetitive filler.
I don't know what the store was called, and it closed within a couple of months. I visited it exactly once, and picked up a Troma movie called Body Parts (still unwatched), The Last House on the Left (because I knew it was the sort of movie I should already have seen), and Angel Heart (which had been recommended to me, but I can't remember by whom). I finally got around to The Last House on the Left in last October 29th. Now I've seen Angel Heart. You know what that means: next October I have to sit through Body Parts.
Anyway, you didn't need to know any of that, and I shouldn't be wasting your time and losing your interest, because Angel Heart is amazing, and I'd like seriously to recommend it.
Angel Heart stars Mickey Rourke as Harry Angel, a private detective living in Harlem. The year is 1955, and Angel is retained by the mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to track down a crooner named Johnny Favorite who was institutionalized with a mental condition after World War II. Favorite owes something to Cyphre, but he seems to have disappeared from the hospital. "What's this guy owe you, anyway?" asks Angel. "I have old-fashioned ideas about honour," says Cyphre, tapping his long fingernails. "An eye for an eye. Stuff like that."
Angel confronts Favorite's doctor, who doesn't know much but provides a couple of possible leads. Angel runs an errand and returns to find the man dead. He returns to Cyphre to throw in the towel, but Cyphre instead shoves $5,000 at him and sends him to New Orleans, where his search involves a fortune teller, a blues guitarist, and a voodoo priestess who happens to be Favorite's illegitimate daughter. Murder seems to follow in Angel's wake, and he becomes a suspect. More importantly, something sinister and possibly supernatural is going on in the background. It's too big for Angel to understand yet, but he can see that it's swallowing him whole.
This only scratches the surface of what's going on in the movie. There's a great deal more, and it's difficult to discuss it without giving away the plot. This is a movie that should be watched unspoiled.
I have to confess, it is difficult to choose movies for this project, because the horror movies I love are located at polar opposite ends of the camp-art spectrum, and the stuff in the middle -- which strikes me as more popular -- doesn't interest me very much. Angel Heart is on the classier, artier end of the spectrum. It's beautifully executed. It is visually rich, well paced, and the story -- which appears at first to be a convoluted knot -- unfolds cleanly and beautifully. Is it a mystery? A thriller? A horror movie? It's all three of these, and I'm not sure which should be the main classification.
Angel Heart was directed by Alan Parker whose body of work includes The Wall, Mississippi Burning, and Fame. He's not exceptionally prolific, but it appears that like Kubrick, he'd like to try his hand at every genre. And he might have succeeded better than Kubrick, come to think of it. His direction is heavily stylized but nearly invisible, except in the most suspenseful scenes, when he's trying to evoke a reaction from his audience. Yes, it takes you out of the movie, but this is still masterful work.
As impressed as I am with Parker's direction, I think the players are at least as interesting. I've never been a fan of Mickey Rourke, but he does a nice job with Angel, portraying him as an uncultured (but very intelligent) plebeian ("I'm from Harlem," he keeps saying, as if it's an apology). I also liked seeing Charlotte Rampling as the fortune teller. She keeps showing up in movies I like, rarely in large roles, but always in memorable ones. De Niro finds the right note for Cyphre; he doesn't have to stretch to accomplish the character, but (and if you've seen the movie, you'll understand) it would have been an easy opportunity to blow.
It might have been possible, in 1987 when the movie came out, to ignore the big controversy surrounding Angel Heart, and in particular, Lisa Bonet. I don't think I can get away with that now, though. Bonet plays Epiphany Proudfoot, the voodoo priestess. She'd just left The Cosby Show to star in her own spin-off sitcom, A Different World, and her role in Angel Heart feels like a declarative statement: "I've grown the hell up, and I'll do what I damn well please." What she damn well pleased, apparently, was getting permanently fired from The Cosby Show in 1991 for being unprofessional. I've skipped the point I was trying to make, though: Bonet and Rourke have an incredibly explicit sex scene so graphic that the MPAA required it to be cut by several seconds to obtain an R rating. This was well known by the time the film was released, and the controversy probably filled quite a few theater seats. Bonet's career took a nosedive after that, mostly because she'd been branded as unreliable by Cosby's producers, but the performance she delivers here is raw and powerful, and something of an accomplishment, in a way that has nothing to do with being naked on film.
Elizabeth Berkeley might've learned a thing or two from Lisa Bonet, but apparently did not. Not that we'll be talking about Showgirls anytime soon. That one doesn't count as a horror movie, unless you were involved in financing it.
Here's the trailer.