Mickey Rourke Angel Heart
Editorials Halloweiner

‘Angel Heart’ and the Twisted Allure of X-Rated Horror

There are good movies, and bad movies, and good bad movies, and bad good movies. Angel Heart, somehow, is all of these. To break it down further: the performances are solid and engrossing (good movie), but the rampant use of “voodoo, so wild!” ideology hasn’t aged well (bad movie). Robert De Niro is having the time of his life with a kitschy performance and intimidating manicure (good bad movie), while the movie’s third-action exposition is adequately written but completely listless (bad good movie). 

Those positive/negative categorizations all collapse in this neo-noir, which is defined by lust and zeal, rage and fear, passion and terror—and its X rating. 1987’s Angel Heart remains a particular artifact for gawkers curious about what Mickey Rourke used to look like and what caused Lisa Bonet to fade away from The Cosby Show for a few years. But for those who let the movie sweep them up in its dangerous-bargain narrative, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart is the kind of stylishly made psychological horror that guides our hand toward an acknowledgment of forces larger than ourselves. 

How do we cope with an utter loss of control when faced with entities more powerful than us, when trying to buck against connections ingrained in us, and when trying to navigate dynamics that care little for our intentions? A face staring back at us in the mirror—a face we might not recognize. Memories that overwhelm us, that draw us into their spheres—and then expel us at the moment before understanding. An attraction so inescapable that it feels like drowning—like we’ll never make it out. This is heaven and hell stuff, life and death stuff, love and hate stuff, and at its center is a Rourke performance that is as vulnerable or ferocious as each scene requires.

Under the guiding frame of a twisty-turny genre exercise, Angel Heart jostles through landscapes littered with dead bodies, soaked with blood splatter, and infused with eerie red light. Its textures are lush and grotesque, its production design detailed, and its editing unsettling. At some point, we should talk about the sex scene that manipulated the binary that exists between violence and sensuality, and also ricocheted Angel Heart to its status as a cult classic. Not quite yet, though. Angel Heart forces patience upon us, but not in the form of foreplay: in the form of dread.

Parker’s adaptation of the 1978 novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg stars Rourke as private investigator Harry Angel, working in New York City in 1955. Rourke plays Angel with easy confidence (a striding gait, a hunched-forward puff on an endless stream of cigarettes), but Parker and cinematographer Michael Seresin consistently place him in situations of unease and uncertainty. 

Angel walks into a church with seemingly one working light, which illuminates and isolates his form. When he meets with new client Mr. Louis Cyphre (De Niro) to discuss finding Johnny Favorite—a disappeared singer who has reneged on a contract with Cyphre—the long-haired, long-nailed man insists to the befuddled Angel that they’ve met before. A later scene at a restaurant where Cyphre peels a hard-boiled egg and bites into it while making unblinking eye contact with Angel crackles with menace. In his dreams, Angel sees women dressed like nuns carrying bowls of bloody water up and down coiling sets of stairs. The visions make no sense, but they recur and return. And nearly everywhere Angel goes while tracking Favorite—Poughkeepsie, Harlem, New Orleans—death follows. Rourke’s escalating reactions of shock, anger, and paranoia to these mysterious killings take Angel Heart in one direction. Meanwhile, Angel Heart moves in another direction, too: one of pervasive seductiveness that equates sexual attraction with helplessness. 

Parker begins Angel Heart with relationships that are transactional, and self-aware. Newspaper employee Connie (Elizabeth Whitcraft) provides Angel with old articles about Favorite, and the two of them have an easy routine as they fall into bed. She unhooks her bra, he unsnaps her stockings, she makes a joke about his erection. It’s not passionate, but it is familiar. In New Orleans, while interviewing Favorite’s ex-girlfriend Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling), Heart hits on her because he can, not because his heart is in it. She’s beautiful, she knows it, and she accepts the compliment with a sense that it’s owed. 

Angel Heart moves on from these interactions with nary a second glance. Instead, everything shifts with the introduction of Epiphany Proudfoot (Bonet). Favorite’s 17-year-old daughter, Epiphany is introduced with a young son, a white tank top soaked through to show her breasts, and a timid, maybe flirtatious, smile. “My mama had a lot of guys. She liked men,” Epiphany says, and there is a level of distance here—unlike Connie, who met Heart’s kiss, or Margaret, who welcomed his praise. Epiphany is not against Heart’s advances (within minutes of their first meeting, he’s praising her beauty with “Your name suits you”), but for all the compliments Heart keeps extending to her “beautiful eyes,” neither of them really sees the other. Not truly. 

Instead, they’re pulled together in an ardorous, covetous haze. What led Heart to spy on voodoo priestess Epiphany in the middle of a ceremony, her chest bare and then coated in the blood of a chicken whose throat she just slashed? What brings Epiphany to Heart’s hotel room, and makes her want him? What causes Heart to want her? Their age gap is significant; she’s only 17 years old. But Angel Heart portrays her like a sort of seductress (of the ritual that led to her pregnancy, she says, “It was the best fuck I ever had”), and Heart makes an unintentionally telling observation: “The gods got you pregnant.” Did they push Heart and Epiphany together, too? Maybe. 

Their sex scene is a mixture of acrobatics and abuse, and tumbles into carnal energy quickly—from kissing to licking, from straddling to naked embracing. Whether their bodies are covered in sweat, or in the rain leaking from the thunderstorm through the room’s ceiling, is impossible to say. Editor Gerry Hambling lingers on the items in the room (bowls and pitchers overflowing with captured water) but cycles quickly between Heart’s dexterous tongue and his thrusting buttocks (the particular cause of its X rating, Parker says), and Epiphany’s naked chest and panting breaths. Sex scenes in cinema are not inherently voyeuristic, but Angel Heart deliberately pushes that perspective. We are not meant to be here, and we are not meant to be watching this. And if we’re not meant to be here, maybe this isn’t meant to happen

If that weren’t clear, suddenly the water turns into blood: sticky, viscous, dripping from the ceiling, coating their bodies. Epiphany’s moans of passion are replaced with openmouthed, silent screams. And whatever dance their bodies had been in together is now over. Whatever implication Angel Heart had made at first, that Epiphany wanted this, falls away. This is Heart’s body dominating and oppressing Epiphany’s, smothering it and thrashing into it, and whatever “little death” an orgasm might provide becomes something less fleeting and more irreversible. And this is the turning point for Angel Heart, too, with the explicitness of this sex scene laying bare the festering rot at the core of this story. 

“The flesh is weak,” Cyphre says, and as an oppositional statement, Angel insists, “I know who I am.” In the final act of Angel Heart, Parker smashes its mirror. Reality is unreliable. Truth can only be found in refraction and distortion, and blood doesn’t lie. Who we are, who we were, who we might have been—none of it matters very much when your body is a vessel and your soul is a sale, and Angel Heart uses its infamous sex scene to make that horror real.

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