I was seven years old when Angel Heart was released. I had absolutely no business whatsoever seeing the film at that age, but my stepdad at the time was obsessed with all things film-related, so he would drag me to just about every single movie that hit our local theater, and it just happened to be that 1987 was the year I spent hanging out in theaters the most.
My earliest recollection of the film was a news piece about how controversial the film’s sex scene between Mickey Rourke’s Harry Angel and Lisa Bonet’s Epiphany Proudfoot characters was, and how it had to be trimmed down just to score an R rating. Even as a kid, I was enthralled by the idea of a film being dangerous and that news piece I saw made me want to see whatever weird, Satanically-inclined film they were billing Angel Heart as. When that weekend came and I did see the film, it instantly became a movie I adored, helping push me into a lifelong obsession with films dealing with the occult, Satan, or just evil in general.
Based on William Hjortsberg's novel, Falling Angel, the film follows Harry Angel, a private investigator (and one of the coolest cats around) who’s hired by the mysterious Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find a missing crooner with the nickname Johnny Favorite. Cyphre helped make Favorite successful and feels that he hasn’t been paid what Favorite owes him, so he sends Angel on his way to find the evasive and missing singer.
Right from the beginning, there’s such an eerie vibe to Angel Heart, a tone to the film that never stops feeling like you’re in for one hell of a ride. It’s almost ghostly, feeling nightmarish and completely unique the entire time and guiding its viewer into a story that starts off strong, but gets even better and better as it goes on. De Niro eats up EVERY single scene he’s in, and Rourke, in my opinion, gives quite easily the best performance of his entire career thus far as Angel. There’s a tortured quality to the character, a softness that brings you in and makes you so enthralled by Harry, that you want to know more and more about the guy, and as both the audience AND Angel begin to discover the truth about what’s going on and what his part in all of it is, it’s impossible not to be on the edge of your seat the entire time.
I have seen Angel Heart close to 140 times and it has never lost its effect or its charm—not for a single second. It’s such an interesting film and story, and when Angel finds himself in New Orleans to find information on Favorite, we’re catapulted into a world of voodoo rituals and an environment that is so wonderfully dark and compelling, that you can’t help but want to see every single shot over and over again. The combination of Michael Seresin’s cinematography and, at the same time, groundbreaking editing by Gerry Hambling, really shows both the landscape and look of the darker parts of New Orleans with some ritualistic nightmare sequences that just leap out at you.
Not in a traditional horror sense whatsoever, though. No, instead of jump scares, Angel Heart feels like you’re involved in a mystery that the devil himself would concoct, pushing you until one hell of an ending knocks you on your butt. As Angel begins to find more info on Favorite, and it leads him to the crooner’s daughter, Epiphany, the film really kicks its devilish charm into overdrive and we’re given one of the most chemistry-heavy pairings in genre films, period. Rourke and Bonet are so good in every single scene they’re in together. As we see that Epiphany is into ritualistic traditions herself, we’re left wondering where the two characters are going, if Angel is in even more danger than he was already in, or if Epiphany has a hand or connection to a series of murders that leaves people Angel had talked to about Favorite murdered—and in the case of one woman, missing a heart.
While the film is very entertaining leading up to Harry discovering the truth about Favorite, Epiphany, Cyphre, and so on, when the film’s final series of reveals, truths, and discoveries all go down, Angel Heart becomes a terrifyingly scary and completely engrossing film even more than it already was. From one of the most passionate and downright sexy scenes in history in the form of the aforementioned intimate moment between Rourke and Bonet’s characters, to reveals of magic, Satanic rituals, and so on, the film is so rich with vision and mood, with tension and mystery, that it leaves you almost drained after it all goes down. Rourke gives such a brilliant performance, too, one that really shows how tortured and emotional a great character can be without ever overacting.
I can’t think of another film from 1987 that affected me as much as Alan Parker’s trip to Hell and everywhere in between. Angel Heart is a movie that I hold near and dear to my black heart, and if any of you Daily Dead readers are late to the party with this one, REMEDY THAT NOW.
This retrospective is part of our Class of 1987 special features celebrating a wide range of genre films that were first released thirty years ago. Stay tuned to Daily Dead in the coming days for more pieces celebrating one of the most exciting graduating classes in horror and sci-fi, and check here to read all of our Class of ’87 retrospectives.