Crime and horror have also enjoyed a cross-pollination over the years, perhaps most notably in the gialli of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Most mainstream horrors have an element of the detective story about them, as rational explanations are initially sought for the paranormal phenomena on display. These are undertaken either by amateur sleuths (David Warner’s photographer in ‘The Omen’) or professionals (Lee J. Cobb as Detective Kinderman in ‘The Exorcist’).
In most cases, the crime element is secondary to the horror or sci-fi aesthetic. ‘Angel Heart’ is a rare and magnificent exception to the rule, where the dominant aspect is shabby private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke)’s investigation into the disappearance of lounge singer Johnny Favourite; where the incursion into outright horror only occurs once Angel’s case takes him to New Orleans and the backdrop of voodoo and superstition suddenly and frighteningly comes to the forefront.
So pervasive is this shift in tone – not to mention the psychological and metaphysical implications of the denouement – that ‘Angel Heart’ reveals itself as a symphony of horrors. I use the phrase and acknowledge its source – ’Nosferatu: eine Symphonie des Grauens’ (F.W. Murnau, 1922) – advisedly. Murnau gives us Max Schrek, his shadow creeping across the wall, through the celluloid of the film and irreversibly into the popular consciousness. Alan Parker gives us Robert de Niro as Louis Cyphre (I’ll hold off on plot spoilers, but eagle-eyed linguists will have nailed it), casting a shadow of quiet threat and sinister manipulation across the film and, indeed, Harry Angel’s past and present.
If Cyphre is the personification of the deepest and most repressed horrors of Angel’s life (the quest for Johnny Favourite’s whereabouts is also an internal journey, into the depths of Angel’s soul), there are plenty of other – more literal – horrors strewn throughout the film. Eyeballs and hearts turn up where they have no business being; chickens find themselves on the receiving end of far worse than battery farming during a voodoo ritual whose aberrant eroticism is the precursor to an intense and sensual sex scene that, like the movie itself, lurches brutally into very different territory; becomes something disturbing and blood soaked. ‘Angel Heart’, particularly in its final third, is awash with blood.
Other images are disconcerting, their meaning often oblique (at least until the final frames): nuns looking up from studious contemplation of the Bibles (a Bible in a parallel scene contains more than just the word of the Lord); footsteps ringing out on cold marble floors; a hand reaching for someone in the crush of a New Year’s Eve celebration; a spray of blood on white tiles; an apartment window bathed in garish red; fans slowly turning; an elevator plummeting down a shadowy lift shaft. The film is as suffused with images of descent as it is with blood.
But for all the grand guignol excesses, Alan Parker achieves a sense of realism in the first half, allowing the more macabre and grotesque nuances of the story to bleed gradually into the film’s aesthetic. The period recreation is grimy and naturalistic. The performances are spot on. De Niro projects menace calmly and efficiently. Rourke wears the mantle of Angel’s rumpled and increasingly desperate persona so completely that it’s one of those remarkable instances in cinema where the actor disappears entirely into the character. In a filmography studded with more great performances than he’s probably given credit for, Harry Angel is arguably his finest moment. That agonising ending, that tearful insistence that “I know who I am” – Rourke brings home the inescapable finality of it.