“Angel Heart” is a stylish and well-acted noir thriller with more than enough devilishly good going for it to warrant a watch.
Angel Heart is a film that might seduce you with its well-acted characters, heady atmosphere, and attention to visual and sonic detail. But beneath this stylish surface, the film gives us one of the most tried-and-true narratives in horror: someone made a deal with the Devil, and the Devil has come to collect.
Set in 1955, Angel Heart stars Mickey Rourke as Harold “Harry” Angel, a rugged private detective from Brooklyn with an aggressive city accent to match.
Angel is hired by Louis Cyphre (played by Robert De Niro) to locate Johnny Favorite, a musician who suffered mental trauma during the Second World War. Angel is left in the dark for most of the movie; all he knows is that Johnny Favorite owes Cyphre some unspecified payment for services. Favorite might still be in a mental hospital, he might have run away, or he might just be dead.
Angel journeys from New York City to upstate and then all the way to New Orleans as he follows the trail of Favorite’s associates.
These associates include a fellow musician (Toots Sweet, played by Brownie McGhee), a former lover (Margaret Krusemark, played by Charlotte Rampling), and a young woman named Epiphany (played by Lisa Bonet).
But something strange keeps happening during Angel’s sleuthing. Everyone he comes into contact with dies. And not just regular death, but brutal, gory murder.
At its core, Angel Heart is a mystery/noir film with horror elements.
And because I think the movie is worth watching, I won’t spoil the conclusion. But there’s a lot to love here.
The acting, for one, is quite compelling. Rourke’s depiction of Angel strikes a seamless balance between detached and sympathetic. De Niro’s Cyphre is mysterious and aristocratic, laconically mannered in a way that makes every encounter between him and Angel uneasy. And Bonet’s Epiphany is perfectly enigmatic, never tipping over into cheesiness.
Another laudable feature of Angel Heart is its production quality, especially the meticulous sound and image editing.
A saxophone wails distantly in many scenes, perfectly conjuring an atmosphere of nocturnal urban foreboding. The filmmakers use editing to create vast amounts of tension and paranoia in particular scenes. One sequence involving quick cuts to tap-dancing feet really stands out.
Finally, the sense of fatalistic doom throughout the film is handled well. It’s a slow build, but you can feel that there’s going to be some kind of monumental revelation that will come crashing down on Angel and re-contextualize all the events of the film. But you’re not quite sure when it will hit.
While these features make Angel Heart stand out, other aspects of the film don’t work quite as well.
If you’re versed in horror-movie narratives, you may see the twist coming from a mile away. I certainly did. And that meant that some of the otherwise skillful tension-building didn’t quite land for me in the movie’s second half.
Angel Heart is at once too heavy-handed and too opaque.
In terms of form (definitely not content), it weirdly reminded me of my reaction to Malignant (2021). That is, I could generally predict what was going on since I’ve seen a lot of horror films, so I stopped being interested in what the twist was. Instead, I became interested in exactly how that twist would be executed.
And the “how” of Angel Heart’s reveal is not really surprising, just a bit convoluted.
Another aspect of the film that doesn’t quite land is its depiction of race and sex. The film presents the African-diasporic religion of voodoo with surprisingly little nuance, awkwardly forcing it to intersect with Christian concepts like “the Devil.” While these kinds of depictions are not new to horror, Angel Heart could have taken the New Orleans setting as an opportunity to show voodoo in a more realistic light.
And then there’s the sex scene between Angel and Epiphany. It’s shot exquisitely, but that doesn’t hide the fact that it shows a grown man having relations with a nearly underage girl. The scene serves a thematic purpose, becoming even more tragic and disturbing after the reveal. On its own, though, it’s quite uncomfortable to watch.
These caveats aside, I can still recommend Angel Heart for a one-time watch.
It’s a professionally made, well-acted, and atmospheric horror film with some truly harrowing moments, even if it falters at the very moments when it should soar.