31 Days of Halloween — Day 8: Angel Heart (1987) — by Dr. Shock

Angel Heart 1987

Editor’s note: Dave “Dr. Shock” Becker is a host on Horror Movie Podcast and the Land of the Creeps horror podcast. He is also the mastermind behind DVDInfatuation.com, a movie review blog where he is watching and posting one review every day until he reaches at least 2,500 movie reviews. Follow Doc on Twitter: @DVDinfatuation.

It was around my junior year in high school that I started collecting movie posters. I had found a mail-order company that sold theater-quality posters for a reasonable price, and each month I’d put aside a small portion of my paycheck so that I could place an order. Once they’d arrive, I would immediately tack the posters up on my bedroom wall, and while my collection was something of a hodgepodge, spanning many genres, I did have one “theme” wall that I dedicated to the movies of Mickey Rourke. At that point in time, Rourke was one of my favorite actors, and the films he made in the ‘80s were (for the most part) truly exceptional.

In my mind’s eye, I can still see the five posters that hung on that wall: “Diner,” “Year of the Dragon,” “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” “Barfly,” and, right smack dab in the middle of them all, 1987’s “Angel Heart.” A bleak, brooding mystery directed by Alan Parker, “Angel Heart” is a film that digs its way into your mind, offering up images that are simultaneously fascinating and disturbing, all in service of a story that grows darker with each passing scene.

Set in the mid-1950s, “Angel Heart” introduces us to private investigator Harry Angel (Rourke), who is hired by the mysterious aristocrat Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro) to track down a man named Johnny Favorite, who, before World War II broke out, was a popular crooner. As Mr. Cyphre tells it, he had a contract with Johnny, and helped him get his career off the ground. But before Johnny could make good on his part of the bargain, he disappeared into thin air, and Cyphre wants to know where the once-famous singer is hiding.

Though the case is a bit more involved than what he’s used to, Angel decides to take it, and after a brief stop at a New Jersey veteran’s hospital, which is the last place Johnny was seen (he had enlisted in the Army in the early 1940s, and was badly injured during the war), Angel follows up on several leads that take him to Harlem, Brooklyn, and even down south to Louisiana. Yet despite his best efforts, Angel is no closer to finding Johnny than he was when he started, and what’s more, the people he’s been questioning are turning up dead, the victims of a particularly violent killer. Haunted by images he can’t explain, and with only one person left to interrogate: voodoo priestess (and Johnny’s daughter) Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet), Angel gives some serious thought to throwing in the towel. But is he in too deep?

“This film has so many layers and textures that it’s as difficult as anything I’ve ever done.” This is how director Alan Parker described “Angel Heart” in 1987, and to be sure, the movie features a great deal of imagery that hints there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Thanks in large part to a series of recurring visions (a woman dressed in black whose face is never visible; an elevator that opens the minute he sees it; and Times Square on New Years’ Eve, 1943), Angel begins to wonder if the case is affecting his sanity.

Religion also figures prominently in the film, from the traditional (Angel meets Cyphre in a Catholic church to update him on the case) to the more offbeat (one night, Angel witnesses a voodoo ritual, during which Epiphany cuts the throat of a chicken and douses herself with its blood). What’s more, Angel discovers that Johnny Favorite was a huge follower of the occult; he had been romantically involved with a palm reader named Margaret Krusemark (Charlotte Rampling), and may have even dabbled in the black arts.

The deeper he delves into the life of Johnny Favorite, the more creeped out Harry Angel becomes, and his confusion and apprehension turns into full-fledged fear when those he’s been interviewing start to drop like flies. Dr. Fowler (Michael Higgins), who treated Johnny at the veterans hospital, seemingly commits suicide by shooting himself, while blues guitarist Toots Sweet (Brownie MgGhee) is found butchered soon after Angel questions him (someone cut off Toots’ penis and choked him to death with it). The fact that most of these murders occur off-screen does nothing to dull their effectiveness (we see the aftermath of several killings, which are plenty gruesome), and thanks to the film’s ominous tone, we’re just as on-edge as Angel through much of the movie.

Rourke delivers one of his finest performances as Harry Angel, a tough-as-nails investigator who would have been at-home in the film noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s, yet finds himself dealing with otherworldly powers he cannot possibly understand. And then there’s Robert DeNiro, who, despite appearing in only a handful of scenes, is unforgettable as Louis Cyphre, a bizarre, sinister individual who acts as if he’s studying Angel each time they meet. All of these elements, plus a twist ending that ranks among the best I’ve ever seen, work in unison to make “Angel Heart” one very intense motion picture.

— Dr. Shock

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5 thoughts on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 8: Angel Heart (1987) — by Dr. Shock


    Day 08 – The Raven (1935)

    The Raven would mark the third time that the two biggest horror actors of the 1930’s, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, would work together in a film. While hardly as memorable or as iconic as their bigger Universal Monster movies, The Raven contains plenty to enjoy, particularly in comparison to some of the weaker movies released on the various Universal Monsters’ DVD sets (All eyes on you She-Wolf of London!) that fail to live up to the high quality expectation of those glorious Universal Monsters movies. Without a doubt though, the leading force of the film is Bela Lugosi. His character of Dr. Vollin was such a sadistic and sick bastard. I loved it. Vollin relishes in his attempts at torturing his victims and he never seems to be too concerned about his consequences. Take his scenes with Karloff’s character of Edmond Bateman for example. Any time Bateman threatens Vollin, Vollin flat out laughs at this intimidating killer. While Dracula may be Lugosi’s most famous role, I’d consider some of these lesser known roles like Dr. Vollin or his Son of Frankenstein character, Ygor, as being more of a personal favorite for me.

    Throughout the movie, there’s a certain similarity in Vollin and Bateman’s incorrect belief for why they do what they do. Both men believe that they’re not responsible for their actions. It’s always something beyond their control. For Bateman, prior to the events of the movie, he only killed people because people made fun of him for being mean looking and being mean caused him to do mean actions. Yet, when we first see Bateman, he doesn’t actually look ugly. Sure, he did look a little haggard and mean, but I’d blame that on the fierce eyes and beard. Bateman killed those characters simply because he’s a maniac. Once the events of the movie began and he fell under the control of Vollin, we’re led to believe Bateman is going forward with Vollin’s plans for murder because Vollin transformed Bateman into looking meaner and Vollin promises to change Bateman’s look again if he simply helped him. However, if Bateman always looked “Ugly” as he believes, why should it make a difference is he looks even uglier? As for Vollin, he compares his insanity to Edgar Allen Poe. When you take away his true love, he just can’t help, but to go crazy. That makes zero sense as he’s only known Jean for a month, she never showed real interest in him, and throughout it all she’s with a man she plans on marrying. The fact that Vollin’s house is set up with one elaborate trap after another should tell you that he’s been planning something like this for years. It’s this failure to accept personal responsibility makes both characters, but moreso Vollin, an even better villain.

    Despite being called The Raven, I wouldn’t say the movie relies too much on Poe’s original poem by the same name. Sure, it’s mentioned a ton, Vollin reads some of it, we’re shown a stuffed raven, and even a segment of a play, but the film feels as if it’s more geared towards being a film dedicated to Poe. Since Vollin is a fan of the various traps and torture devices that are in Poe’s works, we naturally get to see the pendulum from the Pit and the Pendulum and another means of death that I’d consider close enough to being sealed behind a wall just like in The Cask of Amontillado. In hindsight, a far more truthful title for this film would have been “Poe”, but I can understand why the creators opted for the Raven title to cash in a known story.

    There was some great scenes with high tension. The first scene that springs to mind is the reveal of Bateman’s new face after Vollin’s attempt at changing his look so Bateman can continue his attempt at escaping to freedom. You have to know that Bateman’s face isn’t going to be pretty, but your eyes are glued onto the screen, just waiting for the big reveal. It’s reminiscent of both Tim Burton’s Batman and the Twilight Zone episode, The Eye of the Beholder. It’s in the final fifteen minutes that all hell breaks loose and it’s actually quite exciting. The highlight for me being the utter chaos of the “Elevator” bedroom that came out of nowhere. I even enjoyed some of the light hearted comedy with Col. Grant and how Vollin endures interacting with him as little as possible with Grant never picking up on the fact that Vollin has little desire to hear about his ailments.

    If there’s a weak spot in The Raven, it begins with the character of Bateman. It felt as if they created a larger story for his character simply to add to the running time. Would it have really changed the story had instead of finding Vollin, forcing Vollin to change his face but refusing to kill, having his face messed up by Vollin, and finally agreeing to help Vollin kill with the promise of Vollin fixing his face, Bateman was simply Vollin’s butler from the very beginning, had always had the really messed up face, and always went along with Vollin’s plans because he knew that sooner or later, Vollin would give him his surgery? This extra little plot of introducing Bateman’s character and Vollin sending his real butler home early all felt unnecessary. In addition, I would have preferred to see some actual deaths at the hands of Vollin. Two additional couples were invited to the weekend away at Vollin’s mansion that allowed for Vollin to attempt to punish those who stood in his way of his “Love”, but they were left unscathed. They would have been perfect fodder to kill off by some fun Poe inspired traps. Instead, we just get plenty of teases without any proper deliveries.

    Overall, I’m a sucker for these old Universal Monster films. With each one being roughly sixty minutes long, they don’t waste any time. That makes them a breeze to get through, even when the actual quality is rather low (Again, all eyes on you She-Wolf of London). With The Raven, the writing with Karloff’s character could have been far better with writing that didn’t just feel as if they were padding the film’s length and instead devoted that time to getting to know everyone even better. Despite that, Bela Lugosi’s acting and character is fantastic. If you’re a Lugosi fan, The Raven is a must see film just to witness how sadistic he can be. The Raven may not be among my immediate recommendations for Universal Monster films, but it’s one to check out once you see all of the big ones first.

    Rating: 7/10

  2. Day 8: What We Become (2016)

    Rating: 7.5/10 (must see!/buy it)

    — — — — — Contains spoilers — — — — —

    What I liked:
    – The film features an excellent, Carpenter-esque original score and soundtrack.
    – Deliberate pacing explodes into a brutal ending.
    – The small town feeling.

    What I didn’t like:
    – We’ve seen this story before, and while enjoyable, doesn’t really offer up anything new.
    – There are some plot holes, such as near the end when Casper and Dino are getting fired on by the military, and then the next time we see them they’ve somehow managed to escape into some sort of tunnel.

  3. Day 8: Dark Shadows (2012)
    Rating: 5.5/10

    I found nothing interesting about this movie. Though, the two people that watched this film with me really enjoyed it, especially Johnny Depp’s performance.

  4. Day 8 – Madman

    This was a delight. For anyone looking for another Friday the 13thesque campfire slasher this one is a great choice. Honestly, I didn’t know it was a campfire slasher. I feel so uninformed. This ranks right up there with the good F13 entries as well as The Burning and Sleepaway Camp. It has all the good and bad tropes you expect from an 80s slasher. The acting is laughable, but the kills are great. Good Halloween fun even if it’s simply junk food cinema. 8/10

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