One can’t help but feel there’s a competent, gallows humor-infused thriller buried somewhere beneath the camp affectations of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, even if one lacks the will power or desire to persuasively excavate it. The termitic meat of this Faustian exercise sits trapped under multiple, calcified layers of narrative and visual inanity: grubbily ostentatious foreshadowing, ham-fisted private dick-isms that would crinkle Mickey Spillane’s nose, roly-poly Su-thun-ah stereotypes, queasily curdled sexuality, highly unlikely deaths-by-gumbo cauldron, and purple voodoo orgies that make Nick Roeg’s equally flawed Eureka seem well-informed by comparison. From the masterfully shot but grimly artificial seediness of the New York opening to the flagrantly “What a tweest!” letdown of a demonic denouement, there isn’t a single believable or resonant moment in the entire film; even the highly celebrated, jagged-milieu “atmosphere” is more professional than evocative.
Still, metaphysical and emotional anemia is an important tradition in cult horror/mystery, a category the daffy plot twists and crimson, incestuous excesses of Angel Heart sit quite cozily in. Most thrillers that exude a frightening nihilism do so by maintaining a merciless indifference to the humanity of their characters; Angel Heart takes this one step further by instilling within its cast a blasé inclination toward self-destruction. The detached, smart-ass behavior of Mickey Rourke’s Harry Angel, aided magnificently by the actor’s phoned-in performance, is an effective metaphor for the protagonist’s circuitous cherchez l’homme assignment, as well as Rourke’s subsequent, dead-end career: He’s a lifeless, sedentary shell of a man, bitterly self-loathing whenever falling back on his ignorance-defending “I’m from Brooklyn!” mantra, and perfectly displaying the lack of self-awareness one would anticipate from a shell-shocked kid who’s had his heart cannibalized by some dark spiritualists. The scenes between Rourke and Robert De Niro’s Beelzebub avatar Louis Cypher (the noting of which is no more of a spoiler than Cypher’s effetely sinister mannerisms or pewter pentangle jewelry) are creepily perfunctory: Neither of them bothers to act, so the enveloping emblems of Satanist iconography appear unsettlingly casual.
It’s unlikely that a mystery film will again attempt to mesh the distinct debaucheries of New York and New Orleans after the infamous failure of Angel Heart, which is unfortunate; the explicit hocus pocus of pseudo-voodoo could use some wise-guy shrewdness to coax out its more subtle flavors. What drags this film to hell isn’t the mis-mixing of genres, but the insistence on hammer-to-the-anvil suspense buffoonery (which Parker soon after swapped for blatant political buffoonery). The walls bleed when Harry unknowingly fucks his daughter (Lisa Bonet playing “bad”) and the heavy-set Louisiana cops playfully stretch their suspenders when he later puts a pistol “up her snatch” (to borrow the officer’s parlance); it would all be laughable if the evil deeds and premature deaths and withered witch doctor hands led us to more than the protagonist’s unnecessarily messy self-discovery. As it is, it’s mostly just gratingly pointless.