Saturday 2 April 2016

Movie Review: Angel Heart (1987)

A mix of film noir, horror and the supernatural, Angel Heart finds a good mood but veers towards literal and figurative overkill in its second half.

New York, 1955. Two-bit Manhattan private detective Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) is called to Harlem and hired by the mysteriously well-dressed and wealthy Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to find out whether a pre-war crooner by the show-biz name of Johnny Favorite is alive or dead. Favorite was badly hurt in the war, and is supposed to be in a vegetative state in hospital, but Cyphre suspects a ruse. He claims to have a contract with Favorite and wants to make sure that the singer is not reneging on his end of the deal by faking long-term sickness or death.

Angel snoops around the hospital and indeed finds a cover-up. A doctor Fowler was paid a lot of money to pretend that Favorite remained a long-term patient. Instead, the bandaged but recovering singer was smuggled out of the hospital in 1943 by a man and a woman who took him south. Angel's investigation leads him to New Orleans, where he meets Favorite's pre-war associates including fortune teller Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling), musician Toots Sweet (Brownie McGhee),  and the passionate Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), the daughter of Favorite's former lover. Angel finds himself embroiled in the dangerous world of the occult, just as people start showing up dead all around him, victims of gruesome murders.

Director Alan Parker himself created the screenplay out of the William Hjortsberg 1978 novel Falling Angel, and the emphasis is on atmosphere, symbolism and a prevailing sense of dread. The film is punctuated by hallucinatory interludes featuring figures shrouded in black, blood-splattered walls, slowly rotating fans, mirrors, clattering elevator doors throwing large shadows on the wall, and disturbingly omnipresent chickens. Parker plays with light, silhouettes and the juxtaposition of reality, imagination and memory fragments, and Angel Heart works well as an unhinging, dangerous and stylish piece of film making.

The plot is less successful. The second half of the film starts to resemble a train wreck, as characters are introduced and unceremoniously killed-off in macabre fashion. Chickens are sacrificed, rabid dogs are unleashed, henchmen jump out of the shadows, and both internal and external organs are misused for heinous purposes. It's all in the service of a narrative arc that firmly sets its course towards a supernatural resolution, but in the process Parker shortchanges his characters. When the twist ending arrives, it feels rushed. A more thorough, less sensationalist-obsessed exploration of both the contract between Cyphre and Favorite and Favorite's attempt to escape his obligations would have helped maintain a better balance between mysterious and mythical.

Mickey Rourke is quite excellent, and delivers a confident performance as a low-profile gumshoe thrust into a high stakes maze riddled with death. Robert De Niro makes a theatrical impact in just a few scenes, focussing on enigmatic presence as he eats an egg as a history lesson in domination and fills out large empty rooms with oozing manipulation. Lisa Bonet shocked the world at the time by jumping from a wholesome image on television's family-friendly The Cosby Show and into the earthy role of the 17 year old chicken-killing, voodoo dabbling, single mother Epiphany, and sharing a steamy and yet horrifying sex scene with Rourke.

Angel Heart is dark, unsettling, and imaginative but also ultimately too quick to favour gore over noir.

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