Classics, horror, Movies

Terrible Wisdom: an appreciation of Alan Parker’s Angel Heart

‘Are you an atheist?’ ‘Yeah, I’m from Brooklyn.’

The German legend of Faust and the Christopher Marlowe’s classic play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1604) are among of the founding pillars of the horror genre. The original german legend has a bored and disenchanted man named Faust make a bargain with the Devil, in return for rights to his soul his soul to Mephistopheles Faust is granted magical powers for a set period. Upon the expiration of the agreement the Devil will claim his due. Marlowe made Faust more explicitly a seeker of knowledge, whose arrogance and hubris bring him to make a pact with Lucifer when he feels he has learnt all that reason can teach.

The original legend is a simple morality tale with an overtly Christian message that can be interpreted as ‘seeking knowledge that is with God is sin and folly’. Marlowe’s interpretation is much debated but seems to key into Calvinist doctrines popular with writers in the late 16th century, in particular the doctrine of absolute predestination. Is Doctor Faustus damned before he makes the pact with Lucifer? Is it God’s will that his soul should burn in eternal flame?

In 1808 the German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Faust, his own interpretation of the legend. Goethe introduced a serious complication to the original simplistic Christian morality tale. His Faust is specifically targeted by Mephistopheles and tempted into the deal, but he adds a tricky clause. Mephistopheles will serve Faust until he achieved a transcendent moment of complete happiness. At this point, and only at this point, Lucifer will claim his soul. Of course Faust thinks such an attainment is impossible. Faust does not think he has cheated the devil, but the notion of ‘tricking’ the devil himself would become an irresistible one for generations of horror writers ahead.

Among the modern versions of Faust are the comic book characters John Constantine, Ghost Rider, and Spawn. The story has been reworked in films ranging from the comedy Bedazzled (1967, remade 2000) to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). During the seventies fad of porno-chick it was adapted into the hardcore The Devil in Miss Jones (1973). The story even permeates into the real life legend of blues guitarist Robert Johnson, who claimed to have gained his musical skills through a deal with the devil. And of course there is the subject at hand, Alan Parker’s controversial mix of pulp detective story and demoniacal temptation Angel Heart (1987).

Angel Heart is a true cult classic, on its original release in the late eighties it didn’t really find its audience and was the subject of no small amount of critical disdain. For every critic that praised the film there were others who saw a shallow exercise in style and shock. Roger Ebert called it ‘an exuberant exercise in style’ but Pauline Kael dismissed it as ‘incomprehensible’ even the great Kim Newman found it ‘uneventful’. When I saw the film as a 17 year old I was completely entranced. At that young age the idea of combining a noir detective story with supernatural horror seemed completely fresh, that the picture was intoxicatingly erotic added to the already heady tang of transgression.

‘The future isn’t what it used to be Mr. Angel.’

Adapted from an excellent novel Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg (who also scripted Legend for Ridley Scott), Angel Heart is about a seedy private eye called Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke). In mid fifties New York Angel mainly does low rent divorce work but is hired by a suavely sinister gentleman named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro) to track down a former singer called Johnny Favorite. Favorite was popular before the war, but was injured, suffered severe neurological trauma, and has disappeared. Cyphre is vague on the details, but it seems he has an unfulfilled contract with the crooner who he wants Angel to find.

From the off, Angel Heart plunges the viewer into a world which looks like our own, but which contains glimpses of suffocating darkness always on the periphery of the screen. Angel’s first meeting with Cyphre is conducted in a Harlem Church, as the shabby private dick enters he glimpses what appears to be a nun scrubbing blood off the floor of a vestibule. His investigations will take him out of New York to the humid heat of New Orleans where he will meet a voodoo priestess and will discover evidence that Favorite may have dabbled in the occult.

‘Alas, how terrible is wisdom when it brings no profit to the wise.’

Parker builds his film around two very different acting styles. De Niro’s Cyphre is elegant and controlled. His movements are precise, deliberate and economical. His language is slightly archaic. His clothes exquisitely tailored and his suspiciously long nails expertly manicured. De Niro is of course playing [SPOILER] Lucifer himself ‘Mephistopheles can be a mouthful in Manhattan’. In the long line of actors who have played the Morningstar De Niro’s is one of the best, evoking the grandeur of Milton’s Satan, but also having a touch of carny sideshow huxter about him.

‘I gotta thing about chickens’

Rourke’s Angel on the other hand was best described by Ebert who likened him to ‘an unmade bed.’ Rourke has a reputation for playing slobs that pretty much started with this film but before Angel Heart the actor he most resembled was James Dean. The young Rourke of Diner and Rumble Fish was effortlessly cool, soft spoken, and ridiculously good looking. In Angel Heart, he has put on a few pounds and looks like a middle-weight boxer beginning to turn to fat. He is still cool though, as attested to by the increasingly tattered Angel Heart poster that hung on my wall for most of my student years (alongside Beatrice Dalle obviously). Director Alan Parker described working with the actor as an experience, Rourke was completely in the moment, capable of brilliant improvisations, but completely unable to remember what he had done in the previous take or to repeat it.

Technically the film is amazing. Michael Seresin’s photography is rich and dark as sailor’s rum.Trevor Jones’ score featuring Courtney Pine on sax is perfect and turned up on trailers for years after. The intricate sound design is comparable to the way Goblin’s score for Dario Argento’s Suspiria in the way it subtly hints at plot developments and themes.

‘You know what they say about slugs. They always leave slime in their tracks.’

The film was especially controversial in the US for explicit scenes between star Rourke and African American actress Lisa Bonet. Bonet had played Denise Huxtable in the much loved sitcom The Cosby Show, and the sight of her making the beast of two backs with Rourke (who even in 87 had quite the reputation, and whose previous movie was Nine 1/2 Weeks, Adrien Lyne’s wretched faux erotic drama that had been a big hit). It was said that audiences couldn’t cope with seeing America’s wholesome sitcom sweetheart being vigorously pleasured onscreen by an actor 15 years her senior. Of course the fact she was African American and he was caucasian may also have played its part. Whatever the MPAA was unamused (although perhaps not unaroused) and demanded cuts to Rourke’s buttocks.

This article was previously published on


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