It's probably crossed your mind at one time or another. Maybe the stresses of life have got you down and you're simply looking for a way out of the race of rodents before you die of the plaque. Perhaps there's a special fantasy you dream when you are all alone, using this hoped for happening as the basis for a small escape from a life otherwise filled with quiet (and not so quiet) desperation. There are the times when the thought of the power inherent in the concept makes the corners of your mouth turn upward with churlish glee, the revenge and the retribution you'd measure out making you drunk with desire. Oh, what you could do if only you possessed such supremacy. And let's not forget the "F"s – fame, fortune, friendship, freedom – that make contemplating such a subject seem sensible. Never once do you think about the long-term ramifications: the endless, infinite suffering; the humiliation and torment of personal damnation; the acknowledgement that, if there is indeed a fiery pit of ever-burning brimstone and sulphur with your permanent address on it, that there is/was an equal shot at calling on the sacred and getting the same sweetheart deal. But no, you went and sold your soul to the Devil, and when old Satan shows up with a bill of goods for your very interpersonal essence, it suddenly dawns on you what a really bad idea, in the long term, this short term gain in comfort or control has become.
The notion of cheating Old Scratch at his nasty negotiating skills is as ancient as begging the Lord God to smite your enemies. And it's been a ripe tale for cinematic exploration. Films as diametrically different as The Devil and Daniel Webster and Bedazzled have each taken their pot shots at signing in blood with Beelzebub. But perhaps the most compelling and controversial movie on the Satanist subject is Angel Heart, Alan Parker's masterful twisting of detective film noir with gothic horror demonology. Recently re-released to DVD by Lion's Gate in a Special Edition swamped with extras, this surprise ending entry into the soul-swapping sweepstakes is a moody, atmospheric exploration of the lengths individuals will go to secure their sense of power, as well as avoiding a certain supernatural indebtedness.
Harry Angel is a private detective working out of Manhattan in 1955. When an attorney contacts him with a chance to meet his rich client, Harry's scruples and diminishing bank account make the offer hard to resist. This wealthy man, a Mr. Louis Cyphre, wants to locate an old crooner, a guy named Johnny Favorite. Apparently during the war, Johnny was injured and suffered from amnesia. He had been residing in a mental hospital for the last 12 years, but when Cyphre went to visit him, he was told he had been transferred. Now, it appears he has just disappeared. Cyphre simply wants to know if he is alive or dead so he can collect on his contract. Harry doesn't usually handle missing persons, but the money is right and he accepts the arrangement.
The case leads him to upstate New York, where a drug addicted doctor explains the strange individuals that used to hang around Johnny. Some inquiries in the city lead him to New Orleans, where Johnny had a big city girlfriend (the supposed Satanist named Margaret Krusemark) and a dirty little secret on the side (a black voodoo priestess named Evangeline Proudfoot). Hoping to ask these women a few questions, Harry meets with Margaret. Evangeline, sadly, is dead, but her daughter Epiphany is still round. She and Harry strike up a tentative friendship. Soon murder starts following the flatfoot wherever he goes as those he question in the case end up dead. Harry discovers that Johnny may have also been in league with the Devil. The reasons why are unclear, but rest assured, identity and inevitability will lead to a final clarification of whom Angel, Cyphre and Favorite really are, and just what the "debt" is that was owed to the enigmatic tycoon.
Angel Heart has certainly mellowed over the years, playing as far less controversial and quite a bit more compelling that when it first reared its messy, MPAA smeared stigma all over Cineplex screens. So notorious was this gothic noir - mostly for a scene in which then Cosby kid Lisa Bonet screws the eccentricities out of odd co-star Mickey Rourke as blood red rain douses them with clotting claret - that it actually inspired that age old debate over the limits of sex and violence in the media. At the time of its release, this combination of the devil with Dashiell Hammett was met with confusion and contempt. Some found the storyline too fancy, focusing all its attention on details and symbols while avoiding the more obvious fright factors. Naturally, there were those who immediately zeroed in on the bloodletting and emitted the standard amount of piss and moan about possible ill effects on the population in general. Few, though, discussed the movie as a work of cinema. It was either a perverted provocateur of people or a political agenda poised to once again undermine/prop up free speech. Somewhere in the middle, the movie sank into less than stellar box-office and everyone assumed Angel Heart was over and done with. But a funny thing happened on the way to the land of lamentable failures. Released in an unrated form on VHS, Angel Heart became a huge cult hit, the kind of fanatically rediscovered masterwork that has its churlish champions and makes pundits rethink the displeasure they voiced the first time around.
This is more or less par for the course for a film by Alan Parker. One of the most prolific and successful British directors of all time, Parker has always been seen as an also-ran in the sweepstakes of visionary UK directors. When cinemaniacs pick off the names of inspired, imaginative moviemakers, good old Alan doesn't even get a fleeting footnote. The normal names (Ridley Scott and his brother Tony, Adrian Lyne) are bandied about, but our man Al can't get an invite to the adulated adults table. Young upstarts like Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle are often seated before the man behind Fame, Midnight Express, Birdy, Pink Floyd's The Wall, The Commitments, Mississippi Burning, Come See the Paradise and Evita.
True, his canon of craft can be seen as a balance of sometimes crass commercial interests with a Ken Russell-eque desire to overdress the screen with cryptography, usually resulting in that miscalculation of most overdone artistry: pretension. And with two flagrant misfires as current resume placeholders, Angela's Ashes and The Life of David Gale, Parker is not a particularly well thought of moviemaker. Yet when looking back at his oeuvre, from the Turkish prison nightmares of Midnight to the dark side of the gloom called fame in The Wall, Parker is a fabulously gifted, if terribly gaudy filmmaker. Angel Heart is no exception. Creating a world unto itself - from a tumble down New York posited on the verge of reinvention, to a New Orleans bathed in ambiguity - there is an old world atmosphere mixed with a real sense of rotting evil here. This is a movie shrouded in a palpable mist of menace, influencing everything in the film. Even when the plot moves south, utilizing the decadence of New Orleans with the swamp gas of the bayous, Angel Heart maintains its state of sinister spirituality. This may be a post-war society on the verge of modernization. But there are ancient heinous factors afoot here as well.
The basic reason why Angel Heart works is the fact that it plays its supernatural situations completely and realistically, never suggesting outwardly that there are fanciful figures like demons and angels in our midst. This is a battle between good and evil, right and wrong fought in several selected locales: the dirty streets of Manhattan, the overheated highways of Louisiana, in the tainted souls of the characters in the story. Parker uses symbolism to suggest and infer, but we as the audience are only supposed to recognize and react to the archetypes traipsing around. And it works. We completely believe that Mickey Rourke is a broken-down gumshoe because of the setting and his circumstances, not to mention the attention to personal period details. They all capture that truth perfectly. From Robert De Niro's debonair Cyphre – all slicked hair and polished, pointed nails – to Bonet's bayou bedazzler, Parker and his crew strive to make each and every element feel real. When a paranormal underpinning is exposed, the demonic dimensions always seem grounded in a kind of normalcy, as if they would naturally exist in the situation like other creepy calling cards we run into during a day in the life. Because of the serious tone and the bleak sense of ambiance Parker creates, Angel Heart becomes a mesmerizing glimpse into the very nucleus of the perverting power of malevolence. Why Satan was and is called upon in this movie makes for one of its more intriguing elements. And what the man-goat does to settle his scores keeps the chills thrilling and the repulsion overt.
Equally evocative is the entire Louisiana voodoo subplot. Avoiding the common cliché's associated with the notorious people's religion – big hulking Haitians in top hats and white face, amateur talismans that look like pin cushion dolls - Angel Heart allows for the more menacing, mysterious side of the revered rituals to take center stage. Aspects of the practice are not bathed in reactionary rhetoric. Mickey Rourke's blasé response to voodoo's vestments make him, not the philosophy or the facets of the cult, seem stupid. Even a full out chicken killing high priestess dance is stripped of all its exploitative sexuality, rendering the sacrament as a pragmatic expression of faith. The decision to have Margaret Krusemark represent the more "cosmopolitan" version of the slave house shaman, with her fancy manners and polite ways, further fleshes out the inferred possibilities in the power of this native religion. If someone like Ms. Krusemark – and we later discover, her wealthy father – can be swayed by the beliefs of the minority classes, those of the still segregated citizenry of the south, then voodoo just may be a more potent practice than previously thought. It's the visceral nature of the religion, matched against the ephemera and brimstone of the entire God vs. the Devil dynamic that really deepens Angel Heart's meaning. It's a movie that implies that all aspects of life, from our identity to our destiny, are managed and fought over by forces outside our control. And it also suggests that if we succumb to one side or the other, our reward will be predetermined. On one side is life everlasting. On the other is a reward that is short, oh so sweet and bathed in the sinister.
Angel Heart is fashioned as a mystery, a who-done-it (or in this case, who-is-it) that needs a definitive answer at the end. However, the final revelation is not really all that important to the film's forcefulness. As a piece of twist ending cinema, Angel Heart is not out to amaze or confuse. This is not an M. Night Shyamalan style story were the final scene shocker twists the perspective of the entire narrative, having us suddenly realize that we are on the footsteps of the river Styx or watching a dying man relive his memories. For Harry Angel, the pathway to the truth is carved in a clarification of identity and the reality of devil worship's downside. The answer to the missing persons case is more than obvious from the moment we see Cyphre's name, or the figure sitting stoically in a church pew. Electric fans may rotate and stop, acting as portents of death, and elevators offer obvious access as a gateway to Hell, but the final fact about who – or what – Johnny Favorite was, is or became does not make or break this story. Indeed, what we are witness to in Angel Heart is Harry's Vanity Fair, a potboiler pilgrim's progress in which the limits of sin are tested against the idea of redemption to see which deity wins the battle for one man's soul.
[SPOILER ALERT: If you want to avoid additional plot information, jump down to the paragraph starting "Parker's imprint..."] When we learn that Angel is really Favorite, the victim of a voodoo ritual and an unfortunate facial foul-up during WWII, it's true that the murders that have followed the private eye start to make that much more sense. Indeed, there is a line near the end of the film, when Cyphre tells Harry/Johnny that he was behind the killings all the time. He tells Harry/Johnny that, as his servant, he was simply doing "his dirty work", cleaning up the callous cheats who thought they could f*ck with the devil and get away with it.
Angel Heart is about self. Johnny Favorite had a choice. He could have lived up to his end of the bargain, and after the fame and the fortune and the chance at everlasting happiness, he could have paid up with his immortal essence and simply disappeared. Instead, he challenged the darkest power there is with his own level of wickedness and, for a moment, he thought he'd won. As Harry (Favorite incorporated Angel's essence into himself by eating the ex-GI's heart in a strange ceremony) Favorite was further tested by the Devil. When Satan asked him to face those whom he enchanted with his wild world of arrogant evil, he agreed. But what then does Harry do. He kills off everyone he's ever known. He tries to remove both his actions and his reactions from the face of the world. But just like Cyphre says, every time Harry looks in the mirror, what stares back at him is undeniable fact. If Johnny really became Harry, then he committed a sin so great there is no hope of salvation. But if Harry is just who he says he is, and the Favorite case is just a ruse by Satan to see how far a down on his luck PI would fall, then the string of corpses left in his wake indicated just how wicked Angel was himself. Angel Heart tries to look inside the schism that drives men to acts of murder and egregious self-preservation. And it's interesting how important love, money and fame are to the mix.
Parker's imprint is so prevalent on this film that it's hard to tell when the acting starts and the atmosphere ends. Mickey Rourke gives Harry Angel the right amount of hidden agenda to keep his character from being a mere pawn in a perverted paranormal game. Lisa Bonet, who really failed to follow up the potential she shows onscreen, still manages to make Epiphany a strong, seductive presence. Her little girl lost persona mixed with a smattering of danger really underscores the voodoo elements. Robert De Niro knows that playing the Devil requires more than a glare and a grimace. So he instills a suave sense of civility to Satan's cool calling card and manages to be frightening in even the smallest moment (like peeling and eating an egg, for example). Awash in Parker's primitive colors and sepia setpieces, these performers have their acting elevated by the surreal pragmatism of the setting surrounding them. From rundown temples in Harlem to a boiling Blues club on Bourbon Street, Angel Heart sizzles with a seductive sense of bone-chilling thrills. The horror here is more dread than dead oriented and the final moments between Harry and Cyphre crackle with a lyricism that suggests a monumental shift in supernatural power. As Harry screams, "I know who I am", we get the distinct impression that he doesn't really believe it anymore. In Angel Heart, evil eventually wins. But that's nothing new in the realm of soul selling.
Originally released by Artisan in a simple, elegant and almost bare bones package, the original DVD of Angel Heart suffered from some of the worst remastering glitches ever burned onto digital disc. The transfer was marred by an overly dark image that lost a lot of the details in the shadowy world of this film. And the reliance of director Parker on a muted color palette rendered the print almost monochrome. Well, Lion's Gate (who recently purchased Artisan) corrects a lot of these errors with a stellar reconfiguring of the title. The contrasts are now very high and the detail unbelievable. The color has also been corrected to avoid the lack of vibrant imagery. But perhaps the best thing about the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is the overall fresh feeling the film has. No longer locked in its 1987 construction, Angel Heart looks brand-new and near pristine in this excellent offering.
Angel Heart is a very ambient film, using subtle sound cues and channel challenging dynamics to bolster the sense of dread. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack does an excellent job of transferring this aural trickery to the home theater system. You will hear voices behind you, foley moving from wall-to-wall and the presence of powerful underscoring will truly create an environment of trepidation in your living room. The Dolby Digital 2.0 is also very good, keeping the dialogue upfront and the mood to the side, but it can't hold a hearing aid to the devilish 5.1.
Aside from a minor featurette, the original DVD of Angel Heart was woefully short on special features. So this new edition of the disc is practically overloaded with bonus content. We begin with a pair of commentaries, one from Parker and one – sort of – from Rourke. In Mickey's case, a moderator, trying to get his responses to the film, asks him a few simple questions. It's soon very obvious that Rourke is not really interested in discussing Angel Heart in any great depth. He tosses out a party line response to most questions ("I wanted to work with Alan. I thought the script was silly. I just showed up and did my job") and the repetition of that sentiment gets old very quickly. Thankfully, someone got the bright idea of taping this exchange for video and the visual element, Rourke smoking like a chimney and sheepish avoiding each query, is amazing to watch (too bad it ends after 15 minutes). Parker, on the other hand is initially a barrelful of information. He discusses the original novel from which the film was derived (entitled Fallen Angel). He points out the changes he made, with the author's approval, to the original story. He discusses his love affair with the American south and wonders what all the fuss was about regarding the censorship of the movie's sole sex scene. Toward the end, he seems lost in his own movie and the narrative becomes sparse and obvious. But overall, he does provide great insight into this esoteric movie.
During the newly recorded interviews, exclusive to this new DVD, Parker further explains all the changes he made to the original novel and how difficult it was getting De Niro to commit to the project. Rourke opens up and discusses his entire career, from a bit part in Body Heat to a turn as a transvestite in Steve Buscemi's Animal Factory from 2000. He is much more open and direct when looking at his career in general than during that abortive commentary attempt, and he gives a great deal of data regarding the major movies and roles he's played. While it seems a little disingenuous to champion other films (especially Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon) while merely referring to Angel Heart as the reason he "didn't loose his house", it is still a pleasure to see one of the best actors of his generation honestly discuss how he threw his career away for his own pursuits, as strange or as sensible as they seemed at the time. Sadly, Bonet does not participate in the updated material. She is relegated to sounding like a new kid on the block bubblehead in the extensive promotion puff piece featurettes that are included as part of the bonuses. There is not a lot of information extolled in these "behind the scenes" looks at the movie's production. They are the typical marketing material used by Hollywood to sell its product.
In order to, hopefully, set the record straight about voodoo and its practices, a near one-hour documentary entitled Vodoun Truths is presented, broken up into five parts to better cover this vast and interesting subject. The first section presents the various priests, priestesses and shaman involved in the New Orleans scene and they all discuss how Hollywood treats their type and how real the rituals depicted in Angel Heart really are. They also offer their own interpretations of the movie, from its satanic message to the hex vs. heal dichotomy. Part two explains why New Orleans is such a haven for this African/Haitian religion. Part three focuses on the use of dance as a necessary element to the practice of voodoo and the significance of certain styles and steps. Part four centers around the various voodoo spirit forces (called Orisha) and voodoo loa (kind of like the saints in Catholicism). Finally, we witness several of the speakers participate in a couple of dance ceremonies, showcasing the grace and the grandeur of true vodoun worship. Overall, this provocative primer gives a lot of fascinating, if obviously slanted, readings on this mysterious, magical faith.
It's easy to see why Angel Heart missed its audience the first time around. Throughout the 80s, horror had been hampered by a Freddy Krueger mentality that mandated all chills be balanced by buffoonish one-liners and stupid sight gags. Any serious attempt at meshing the supernatural with the scary (and in the case of this film, the sacred) would obviously have been met with the mantra from the new technology (VHS just hitting its stride at this point); "I'll rent it". Now is the time to rediscover (or witness for the first time) a near perfect marriage of mood with cinematic mastery. DVD only enhances and nurtures what Parker and his cast placed on the screen so many years ago. In this brand new, overloaded digital presentation, Angel Heart becomes a forgotten gem, a no longer controversial piece of brilliant craftsmanship that represents the height of Alan Parker's pana-visionary skill. Though it burns with a core of foul wickedness and brazen brutality, it also understands the detective genre and the Hollywood mainstay of the mystery thriller implicitly. And it applies all this knowledge to a scintillating story about the lack of identity, corruptibility of power and the desperation to preserve it. For Harry Angel, the discovery of the truth is not so important as the avoidance of responsibility. And while there are few definites in this world, when you mess with the Devil, you have to pay his due. And in the world of Angel Heart, that baneful balance sheet is a bastard to settle up.
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