March 6, 2016 This Week in Horror Movie History – Angel Heart (1987)
This week in Horror movie history, back on March 6th of 1987, Angel Heart darkened the silver screen. An adaptation of the 1978 novel Fallen Angel by William Hjortsberg, Angel Heart’s screenplay was written by both Hjortsberg and Director Alan Parker (Midnight Express 1978, Mississippi Burning 1988). Released via TriStar Pictures, the film also garnered an all-star cast that included Mickey Rourke (9 ½ Weeks, 1986, Iron Man 2 2010), Robert De Niro (The Godfather II 1974, Cape Fear 1991), Lisa Bonet (The Cosby Show, High Fidelity 2000), and Charlotte Rampling (Georgie Girl 1965, The Verdict 1982). With a mixture of updated Film Noir, Detective, Mystery, and gritty Horror, Angel Heart gained a lot of attention upon its release.
In the 1950s, Louis Cyphre (De Niro) hires New York City P.I. Harold “Harry” Angel (Rourke) to track down Singer John Liebling, AKA famed singer Johnny Favorite. Favorite suffered severe injuries during World War II, leaving him with severe neurological trauma which caused him to renege on a debt to Cyphre. Thus began a bloody odyssey where each of the Favorite’s associates was killed in a horrifying manner.
Angel’s investigation led him to intriguing, apprehensive characters. His search began at an upstate psychiatric hospital where, years previously, a Southern couple paid the treating psychiatrist, Dr. Fowler (Michael Higgins: The Stepford Wives 1975, Death Becomes Her 1992), $25,000 to falsify records and release Favorite from treatment for shell shock. Research led to Favorite’s old-moneyed creole fiancée, Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling). In New Orleans, Margaret reluctantly told Angel Johnny died. Favorite had a mistress, Evangeline Proudfoot, who also died, but Angel met her colorful and tight-lipped 17-year-old daughter, Epiphany Proudfoot (Bonet), who was conceived during the relationship with Favorite.
Although initially reluctant to trust, the teen eventually let down her guard and enjoyed a controversial and bloody sex scene that nearly earned the film an X rating. Former Blues bandmate Toots Suite (Brownie McGhee: The Jerk 1979) and Margaret’s father, Ethan Krusemark (Stocker Fontelieu: Obsession 1976, Frankenstein 2004), flesh out the investigation further. Johnny Fortune was described as a magician who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for stardom. However, when time came to pay up, Fortune murdered a soldier and stole his identity by eating his still-beating heart. Fate twisted Fortune’s escape with the outbreak of WWII and the resulting brain injuries.
However, after disclosing their information, Favorite’s associates die in horrible, ritualistic ways. One has a heart removed with a ceremonial dagger, another drowns in a pot of gumbo, and one is shot through her privates. Staying for the end credits revealed whispered warnings and an interesting final scene foreshadowed in dream sequences throughout the movie.
The American film industry balked at the idea of The Cosby Show’s star Bonet dancing topless and participating in Voodoo rituals. Audiences found the nineteen-year-old actress’s squeaky-clean image tremendously soiled by the sex scene with Rourke, who was nearly twenty years her senior. To amend a potential “X” rating, Parker and Marshall cut the scene by ten seconds. Regardless of the controversy, the film, for the most part, broke even at the box office with its approximately $17 million budget.
Angel Heart is a cerebral and fairly faithful exploration of William Hjortsberg’s 1978 novel Falling Angel. Within its 113 minute running time, the film explores temptation with Voodoo, Satanism, ritualistic murder, animal fighting and sacrifice, graphic sexual content, and profanity. Part of the film’s appeal is the internal and intellectual approach to storytelling. Worked into the dialogue are quotes from Oedipus Rex and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, as well as inventive puns.
Although the Faustian theme of the film is undeniable, Angel Heart also brings to mind The Devil and Daniel Webster, with an American trying to escape a demonic contract, or the Charlie Daniel’s Band song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” In addition, little people know that it also served as an inspiration to the Gabriel Knight computer game series, 1993’s Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. More impractical than many realize, the film was punctuated with visceral and unforgettable scenes, and the actors perform well to seal the deal. Overall, Angel Heart retains its intrigue and bloody allure after all these years.