The summer of 1987 gave us some great films—Predator, The Untouchables, The Lost Boys, and Innerspace—yet within this wealth of exciting, eccentric cinema, it’s easy to miss one of the greatest of them all. This may be partly due to the fact that it didn’t come out in the summer, which I suspect to be some sort of production misjudgment-cum-cosmic mistake. This film is Alan Parker’s pulp horror shocker Angel Heart, and in its stylish badness, its trash sensibility elevated to aesthetic perfection, it represents one of cinema’s great overlooked singularities.
The true core triumph of Angel Heart is its artful nastiness, its commitment to its depraved pulp pedigree. Ultimately, that’s what you should see when you step back and take in the whole of the film. But we can get to that later. We have to start with the details, the connective tissue: Three actors, all at different places in their careers, all setting the stage for their future histories, coming together to make Angel Heart’s sick magic. You could probably step outside of Angel Heart and write a whole study on how the actors involved related to the film and to one another. I don’t have that kind of space, but I’ll certainly still mention it on the way to more fundamental things.
Robert De Niro was, and is, a leviathan of a screen personality, dominating Louis Cyphre’s every scene. As a sort of effeminate trolling Satan (I trust you won’t begrudge me that minor, very predictable spoiler), he brings the role an uncanny, quiet confidence and a sort of meta-narrative seniority and credibility. The only thing more surprising than De Niro’s twisted take on his character is the fact that Mickey Rourke, playing the part of a slippery and cynical private dick, is able to compete with him in so many pivotal scenes.
Rourke was an up-and-coming leading man at the time, and in retrospect, he was more interesting for his future than for his past. Angel Heart was his first movie after his intensely manipulative, sexually dominant turn in 9 ½ Weeks, and four years later, Rourke would quit acting to become a boxer. It’s not hard to imagine that after playing such depraved, morally and spiritually bankrupt roles as John Gray and Harry Angel, Rourke might have needed the physical brutality of boxing to purify himself of the perverted stain of his characters.
Compare this to little Lisa Bonet, veteran of The Cosby Show and A Different World, who was running in the opposite direction: Where Rourke would eventually try to escape the immoral characters he played, Lisa Bonet was using Angel Heart as a way to escape her family-friendly public image, to broaden her horizons as a movie star. Her graphic, violence-tinged sex scene with Rourke was a shock to her audience, but it didn’t blow open the world of movie acting for her. As it is, it stands as a sort of monolithic performance, Lisa Bonet’s crowning on-screen scandal. Her subsequent marriages and supporting roles have been pretty benign in comparison.
The actors are masterful, but to really penetrate Angel Heart’s facade, you have to look to its source material and cultural context. There is no redeeming subtext or apologist annotation to be found here; following the trunk to the roots will only lead you deeper into the film’s pessimism and trashiness. The sensitive viewer will ultimately discover that this nastiness is Angel Heart’s triumph, its most credible claim to cohesion and greater purpose, its greatness a sublime harmony of cheapness and depravity.
The narrative, adapted from William Hjortsberg’s novel Falling Angel, merits mention, but not too much scrutiny. This story, which takes place entirely in New York, is adapted faithfully, but somehow becomes almost irrelevant. The switch to New Orleans is ultimately far more important than any fealty to the written word; on the whole, the narrative is only a thin skin, a loose structure for the exhibition of pulp stylings in the grandest, grittiest tradition.
Angel Heart owes an unrecognized debt to a long-forgotten genre of comics called Fumetti, an Italian pulp relic of the ’70s and ’80s. I can give you the names of some titles—Lucifera, Sukia, Madame Brutal—but don’t look them up if you’re at work. Unless, of course, your workplace is okay with extremely explicit erotic horror comics, in which case… are there any positions open?
Goofing aside, these comics provide a clue as to what Alan Parker is going for in Angel Heart. The Fumetti used broad, bizarre, supernatural horror scenarios to guide the reader into sensationalistic violence and sex. They were pure pulp, with no pretenses of realism or subtlety. Further, they were intentionally tricky narratives, with plots that hinged on ridiculous twists that were either totally predictable or utterly nonsensical. In the grand tradition of horror, the Fumetti stories were often about vicious, depraved, and amoral anti-heroes, and when they were one-offs, they often ended in the tragic demise of the protagonist.
In Harry Angel’s hardboiled, clumsy gumshoe-speak, you can practically see the little speech bubbles popping up in the frame. In his mind-numbing inability to grasp what the audience figures out within the first quarter of the film, you can see the echoes of the plot-device stupidity that haunts so much horror. And as with any voyeuristic horror story—indulgent, guilty, and grimy as it must be—the film tiptoes around the truly depraved exhibition of the rituals and murders, always wanting to show them to us, but never quite finding the nerve… until the “climax” of the film, when we get a furtive glimpse into the erotic, Satanic, destructive engine that has been pushing this story along since the beginning.
So why include this in a series of films called “Summer of ’87,” when it was released in March, barely beyond the threshold of winter? Honestly, when you see the film, it should shock you that it wasn’t a summer release. Not only is it cheap and free-wheeling popcorn fare, it’s also a film about the rising heat beneath the Earth’s mundane, morally-sound crust. In Angel Heart, the seasons seem to pass in time lapse. In New York, the remnants of winter are still melting away, and Harry Angel’s life is bogged down in the brown slush. When he reaches New Orleans, it’s suddenly summer, marked by a sweaty, hopeless heat wave that leaves the harried protagonist staggering and gasping for air. And as the temperatures rise, the film seems to unfreeze, become ripe with portent, and then rot into desperate paranoia, right before the audience’s eyes. Despite its March release, it is a film plagued with summer, in its hottest, sickest, most pungent form.
There is something in Angel Heart’s trajectory that is truly reminiscent of death, decay, and descent into Hell. If Harry Angel is the fruit of the tree of life, floating above the earth and remaining out of reach of death and retribution, then Johnny Favorite is the Earth and the Animal, a force of nature that kills indiscriminately in order to protect itself and satisfy its gory appetites. And beneath all of this, in the loam beneath the dirt, in the roots of that tree, there is Satan’s smirking presence, ready to receive these mortal aspects after their brief, blissful sojourn into the virgin air. This is a summer film because it’s about the steaming, putrid bowels of innocent and abundant humanity, and it’s about one doomed mortal who, like an unpicked apple, must fall to the earth and rot away.
And all this, performed by three amazing and dedicated actors, amounts to a brilliant fragment of late ’80s trash cinema, the horrific, unapologetic cinema of pulp. For great films, 1987 was not exactly the rough, but even among precious stones, Angel Heart is a diamond of the highest order.