Friday, January 21, 2011

Angel Heart Film (& Disc) Review

"Alas... how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise, Johnny?"
It's still winter, yes? I say that because mother nature continues to toy with those of us in the southland. It's been a false spring for L.A. dwellers of late, and it seems few know that it won't last. It's just a wicked joke waiting to be played (this after a weird and very wet Fall). I don't expect to get much sympathy on this point from much of the country given what many have gone through in this cold and snowy January. Still, everyone else is not under constant threat to slide into the Pacific Ocean after a gargantuan quake like us (the fact that we'd be wearing shades and sunscreen when it happens is besides the point). So, it's probably good timing for the Scientist Gone Wordy and I to get the duo post series back on track after the holidays. As usual, the wordy one will examine the text of a famed novel later adapted to film, which I will review. In this case, she'll be looking at the source novel for the 1987 Angel Heart film, Falling Angel. Rachel's book review can be found here:

A brief synopsis of the film: In January 1955 New York City, an archetypical low rent private investigator by the name of Harold Angel hits a jackpot of sorts. He lands a seemingly routine missing-persons case for a wealthy client. It appears some big band singer from years back didn't fulfill a contract with the mysterious vendee, a chap named Mr. Cyphre. It is explained that the crooner was institutionalize long term due to WWII injuries and shell shock. PI Angel's job then is to prove the hospital in question has falsified the records, and using what he comes across, to locate the fellow with the stage name of Johnny Favorite so that a certain 'collateral' can be collected by the patron. The dark elements that the private eye uncovers, and the peril he faces in doing so, will be laid bare in the telling of the tale.

[spoiler warning: some key elements of the film are revealed in this review]

The rest of the review (now updated) can be found on my current blog, located here.


  1. "Outside of <span>Apocalypse Now</span>, I can think of few films that top the use of humidity and sweat to palpable effect like Angel Heart."


    Great review! I love this film so much that I went out and got the book its based on really dug it as well. I felt that Parker's film was quite faithful to the source material. He really nailed the noir mixed with dread vibe and the atmosphere he created throughout was fantastic. It doesn't hurt that the film was also anchored by some very strong performances as you rightly pointed out. I certainly agree with you that there are images in this film that linger long after the film ends. Awesome film.

  2. Michael:  Thank you for a terrific review of Angel Heart, a horror noir if ever there was one, as you rightly point out.  (And thanks for the shout-out in the body of the review as well, my friend.)  

    Like you wrote, many of the images in this film yet linger in the mind...they are unforgettable.  The swirling fans; the use of "humidity and sweat" and of course...the blood and the rain in that notorious sex scene. 

    This movie is one of my personal favorites of the 1980s horror genre.  I still remember the first time I watched it, and the feelings of horror it evoked; the sense of multiplying, choking horror, I should say, as Harry irrevocably orbits his past...and his future.

    Fantastic review, and great reading...

    John K. Muir

  3. Great review. I saw this movie in the theater just after it was released. It's one of those films that stays with you a while after you see it.

  4. Terrific review. I saw this when it was first in theaters, but haven't seen it since. I loved the story twists but I thought the symbolism was laid on with a trowel. I'm wondering if I saw any Mickey Rourke films after this one, too, because his derailment came pretty close after the release, or am I misremembering?

  5. Great review. One hell of a movie and one hell of an egg.

    I wish Parker would make good movies again.

  6. Comment the first:

    I'm obviously going to be the 'debbie downer' at this party because I didn't like the movie at all. But hey, dissenting voices can make for discussion, right?

    I completely agree re the non-80s feel to the movie. I even went back to the slip sleeve that comes from Netflix to check the release year again as it felt so decidedly non-80s. The period atmosphere really worked for me and I give much credit to the set designer/decorator. One thing that I could not get out of my head was Harry's tousled locks and lack of hat. That felt very non-50s to me.

    I agree with Naomi re the symbolism. Within ten minutes of the film beginning, I felt like I was choking on it and was so disappointed because the subtlety of the book was so very much something I enjoyed. While visually striking, I felt the movie blew its wad pretty much out of the gate. Also, I could not get on board with the fan business.

    I did find the performances to be very strong. I think Rourke did a pretty good job with balancing Harry's moments of vulnerability with his moments of aggression. It's hard to do this within the time contraints of a film.

    Nice catch on Harry locking himself in rooms with future corpses. I didn't notice that and found myself replaying every scene in my head to check for it. :) Very cool.

  7. Comment the second:

    Ultimately, Parker's vision for this story was very different from mine and I think that's why I disliked it so much. I felt that he took away the essence of the mystery by being so heavy-handed with his imagery and that he took out the horror by making stuff bizarre instead. Rather than intrigued I was bored. Also, it seemed like he overlaid the two ways of practicing voodoo seen in the book with Harry's dual identity and in doing that lost a very interesting dichotomy. This undermined the devout aspects and made the entire thing trite rather than a real faith that exhibited two sides; one for me to fear and one for me to be interested in.

    And, finally, the decision to set a portion of the story in Louisiana made no sense. As an adaptation to the book I didn't like it at all. On a personal note, it's one of my pet peeves when the South is used in the way it felt it was used here. Rather than being a real place with real people with various ways of going about their lives it's quite often used as the Poor Setting or the Ignoarant Setting or the Weird Setting. I thought the voodoo in NYC was inspired. This is a city with which many people are familiar and inserting a strong voodoo tradition is a great way to once again mimic the theme of duality/good and evil seen in the story. On the surface you have the vibrant city but once you scratch that surface you have many layers, sides and philosophies. Which of these is true - and safe - is really important to what Harry is doing. By moving this to New Orleans that is completely lost. Now it's just that weird voodoo shit that those weirdos do down there in the South.

    Well, I've crapped on this movie enough now, huh? I guess we can't like them all. I'll just have to go and read the book again since I liked it so much.

    btw, even though I didn't like the movie I loved the review. Outstanding as always!

  8. Excellent review, Michael. Will give the Blu-ray a rent after reading this. Great performances from two of my favourite actors and a truly memorable less-is-more turn from Charlotte Rampling.

  9. Excellent call on Cool Hand Luke, J.D. As I mentioned to Rachel, when I first saw this film I couldn't say I loved it. However, it really haunted me. So much so, that I sought out the source novel. Loved that. Then the unrated version was released for home play, watched it, and I fell in love for how Alan Parker handled the adaptation. Thanks, J.D.

  10. Rachel & I made the selection of Falling Angel/Angel Heart for this series before you posted your review of Meehan book. Your piece really highlighted what I find so appealing with the Horror Noir genre and felt it belonged in this review. Glad to have included it, my friend. Many thanks for your kind words and comment, John.

  11. It sure does, John. Thank you.

  12. I think you are right, Naomi. Rourke reportedly said he thought his career started going downhill after The Pope of Greenwich Village. I think he remains an interesting actor, and should have won the Oscar for The Wrestler, IMO. And yes, Angel Heart is very symbolic in its execution. Thanks, Naomi.

  13. Thank you very much, Bryce.

  14. It's more than fine to not like the film, Rachel. I don't think it's a favorite of my wife's, either. Art directors Kristi Zea & Armin Ganz do deserve a lot of credit for the period atmosphere they establish in the film. But I see your point about the lack of a hat for Angel in a mid-50s detective story (in wintry NYC, at that) is an inconsistency (good catch).

    As you'd expect, I'm okay with the symbolism deployed by Parker (it's a visual strong point of his). But, you're correct in that the book's signs are more subtle. At least we agree on Rourke's performance ;) .

    Thanks, Rachel.

  15. That's a very interesting argument, Rachel. The contrast of voodoo and satanism (as described by Epiphany to Harry) in the novel was a highlight, and could have provided another interesting facet in the film. The move to New Orleans I appreciated, however. Likely for the magnificent scenery and traditions of the area, but also for making Harry even less at ease as his investigation progressed (though scratching the surface in NYC and uncovering what he finds there in the book is how you describe it). Your argument is thoughtful and reasonable.

    Still, IMDB brings up an intriguing bit of trivia concerning this:

    "In the novel the entire story was set in New York. In the movie much of the action of the film occurs in New Orleans. This change was suggested to Alan Parker by William Hjortsberg himself."

    Yes, we both can't like them all. But, I love your comments and the passion you bring with them, Rachel. It's a real high point for me to join in on these. Many thanks.

  16. I recommend the BD of the film, Steve. I'd love to hear your thoughts about it. Good call on Charlotte Rampling, too. It's a very small role, but she really makes it memorable. Thanks, my friend.

  17. I suppose I must be thankful he didn't have the idea while writing the book. ;)

  18. I wouldn't change a thing in the book, either. Thanks, Rachel.

  19. I was working at a theatre in Westwood, CA when this film premiered in 1987. I snuck into the theatre every chance I could- everyday during its run- I knew then, I was watching a unique horror classic. I recently found out that my youngest sister loves horror films. She recounted a glowing litany of her favorites, and I asked if she had seen Angel Heart. She had never heard of it. I ordered it the next day at Amazon and had it shipped to her home.

    She emailed me about an hour ago- she just received the DVD package- she's going to watch the film tomorrow.

    My work here is done! :) I enjoyed reading your review- it was refreshing to hear someone speak of the film as passionately as I feel about it. In fact, whenever I hum or sing to myself, "Girl of my dreams, I love you- Honest, I do...", I imagine I am singing to the spirit of the film, itself!

    1. Thank you very much, and sorry I am so late in replying. :-)