Nowadays, all it takes for a film to be controversial is for the leads to have an insufficient amount of penises. But back before the internet became an outlet for the collective ids of every man who has ever owned or thought about owning a Sailor Moon body pillow, a movie had to do something pretty darn shocking to be considered controversial before anyone had seen a single second of it. While at the time, 1987’s Angel Heart was a Kick Me sign for controversy, it has been largely forgotten today, and that’s a damn shame.
It seems a little quaint now that we might fret over one of the stars of The Cosby Show being seen in a new, disturbingly sexual light. Shit’s changed, now that we know what kind of monster Bill was. At the time, casting Lisa Bonet, known for her role as family-friendly bohemian Denise Huxtable, as a seventeen-year-old frequently topless voodoo priestess who has a rather lengthy, explicit, and blood-splattered sex scene with Mickey Rourke, was not only asking for controversy, it was angrily demanding it.
This scene, in which Rourke — who, we all sort of collectively figured, had this kind of sex anyway — was what Angel Heart was primarily famous for. For good reason too: it’s an operatic performance, something that looks drawn from an Argento picture, a vibrant splash of color against a grimy noir’s grays and blacks. The scene starts out as a relatively standard, if long, sex scene for the day, and remember, in the far more permissive ‘80s, sex scenes were practically required and the fact that one of the participants was seventeen was only brought up in the context that her character was a young single mom. It was with the juxtaposition of violence, first a rain of blood, then an escalation I won’t spoil, that earned it the dreaded X rating from the MPAA. The director cut it down and turned the most extreme act of violence to implication (an improvement), but the damage had been done. This was the movie that was almost X.
While sex scenes are often dismissed as gratuitous (often by people who don’t really know what gratuitous means), this one was definitely not. It was an apotheosis for both characters involved, a moment that damned them both without either understanding how or why. Bonet’s character, the improbably and awesomely named Epiphany Proudfoot, is consistently depicted as an extremely sensual person. She’s also, oddly, an innocent. The character is a paradox, straddling worlds like they were Mickey Rourke or something. She has a frank attitude toward sex, but is always garbed in light colors — often virgin white. Bonet herself is biracial, another two worlds her character has a foot in without being truly accepted by either. She’s a voodoo priestess, but is also the sweetest and gentlest person in the movie, the only one who truly does nothing to deserve the fate that awaits every doomed character in this world.
Angel Heart has an appropriately jaded attitude toward faith. Without exception, religion is depicted as a home for empty promises. Christians are shown as either slack-jawed swamp people or fainting histrionic performers, more concerned with the form of their faith than the function, while the voodoo practitioners are tampering with forces beyond their understanding. In the world of Angel Heart, God might be dead. Probably not, but he isn’t, he definitely doesn’t give a single, solitary fuck about you. The Devil, though… he’s interested. And he’s got stuff that’s priced to move.
The film is structured as a lean noir, taking place in 1955. All noir has twists, and Angel Heart shows its twist up front. In fact, the twist is so painfully, thuddingly obvious, it’s almost a dare to the audience. It’ll make the unwary viewer think he has the film outsmarted, so when the true twist is sprung, it becomes that much more shocking.
What’s the first, obvious twist? Rourke’s beat up PI Harry Angel gets hired on a missing persons case by De Niro playing a long-nailed unblinking freak calling himself Louis Cyphre. Yeah. There’s like one person who didn’t figure that out and had to pick their jaw off the floor with a backhoe. The assignment seems easy at first, but pretty soon the bodies start piling up, and Angel knows he’s dealing with more than he bargained for. The action shifts as well, from the gray-brown streets of New York to the verdant greens of the Louisiana bayou.
Getting back to the pervasive presence, but impotence of Christianity: Cyphre’s preferred meeting spaces are in churches. Oddly, he never appears in any voodoo ritual. The implication then, is that all the power has been stripped out of the Christian church, leaving only a hollow place where the Devil can relax unimpeded. Voodoo is perhaps too alien for even the Devil himself. Or else he knows better than to shit where he eats.
The best horror films featuring Satan as the antagonist always have to set up his involvement with strange and uncanny images. Angel Heart might be at its best when it laying the groundwork in the first act, having Harry run across eerie situations that, while not obviously supernatural, are weird in a way designed to sit in the middle of the uncanny valley: a hooded figure who first appears cleaning up the blood from a suicide, silent nuts who move in unison, vicious dogs at every turn. Images like this help conceal the film’s true twist, which is foreshadowed relentlessly enough — most brilliantly in the form of a pun — that it makes you wonder why you never saw it to begin with. Of course not; a clever soul like you knows Cyphre is the Devil.
While Bonet was the showiest casting (and perhaps ironically, the most dated), the movie belongs to Rourke and De Niro. These days Rourke is known as the comeback kid, taking a body ravaged by an ill-advised combat sports career and disastrous plastic surgery, and using it to craft grotesque protagonists with the pain of the world in every weary movement. Rourke still has his looks here, a combination of the chiseled ideal ‘50s greaser profile with the hangdog character of an old New York bloodline. His charm makes Harry Angel a likable guy, even when he’s doing things like shaking down an old junkie or having rough sex with a seventeen-year-old girl.
De Niro had the opposite career trajectory, and this was before he devolved into lazy self-parody. While the design of his character might be flirting with over the top, De Niro underplays Satan. He sees the Devil has faintly amused by the games mortals play, but also weary of their attempts to outsmart him. De Niro’s Devil always wins his games and doesn’t understand why people don’t understand that. Incidentally, if you were ever wondering who was better, De Niro or Pacino, they both played Satan. Have a look at their diametrically opposed interpretations of the role.
Angel Heart started its life as a controversy in search of a movie. The controversy is gone, leaving only an excellent occult horror noir that deserves to be rediscovered by fans of either genre.