Thursday, June 23, 2016

Angel Heart

3/4

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Lisa Bonet, Robert DeNiro, Charlotte Rampling

Rated R (probably for Disturbing Violent and Sexual Content including Graphic Bloody Images, Language and a Drug Reference)

"Angel Heart" is a fusion of film-noir and gothic horror.  It makes sense; both genres deal with the darker side of human nature and tend to be violent and scary.  "Angel Heart" combines the sensibilities and style of a Humphrey Bogart movie and mixes it with Christianity and voodoo, explicit sex and bloody violence, and a fear of chickens.  Surprisingly, it works.

New York City, 1955.  Harry Angel (Rourke) is a small-time private dick who has received a new case.  A mysterious man named Louis Cyphre (DeNiro) wants him to track down a crooner by the name of Johnny Favorite.  Apparently, Favorite has a debt to Cyphre, and the man wants to collect.  The case takes Harry from Harlem to Louisiana, with bodies piling up, he soon realizes that he got more than he bargained for.

Mixing genres doesn't always lead to success, even when they seem like a natural fit.  Just look at "Leprechaun," which attempted (and failed) to mix fairy tales with gory horror.  Fortunately, director Alan Parker has isolated the strengths of both film-noir and horror and fits them together.  He has the characters and story structure for a film-noir with the atmosphere and manipulative camera angles of horror.  In this way, the trademarks of the genre have gained new life.

As the hard-bitten private investigator, Mickey Rourke is a natural for the genre.  With his gravelly (but still intelligible...unlike today) voice and intense physical presence, Rourke was born for the genre.  He has a softer side and a biting wit that ensures that we get on his side.  Lisa Bonet brings her soft voice and worldly personality to the role of Epiphany Proudfoot, a 17 year old voodoo priestess.  Her journey from the squeaky-clean girl on "The Cosby Show" to a participant in one of the most graphic and disturbing sex scenes in a long time (10 seconds had to be shaved off to avoid an X rating, which was the predecessor for the NC-17) caused a significant amount of controversy, although Bill Cosby encouraged her to take the role anyway.  The always good Charlotte Rampling shows up as a fortune teller with a secret.  The weak link is, surprisingly, Robert DeNiro.  He's not bad, it's just that horror isn't a genre that he fits into.  Aside from a few chilling moments, he's still Robert DeNiro with long hair and fingernails.

Famed British director Alan Parker knows what he is doing.  He understands the rules of each genre and how to make them work in tandem.  The effect is a creepy and atmospheric experience.  There are no cheap shocks or jump scenes, which is nice.  Parker takes his time and trusts his instincts to get us on edge.  Unfortunately his sense of pacing is off.  By its nature, this is a slow-burn horror movie.  That's okay, a pace similar to, say, "The Descent," would have killed it.  But when each encounter ends the same way, we get the sense that the film is spinning its wheels rather than building tension.  While Parker may have been constrained by the source material, it's his job to make sure that it doesn't feel drawn out.

The film's final scenes are a considerable drop-off in quality.  They don't sink the picture (in fact, they contain two of the best scares), but they are sloppily written and confusing.  And what was with those quasi-dream sequences?

The ending and pacing aside, this is a most unsettling horror movie.

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