“Johnny Favorite was as close to true evil as she ever wanted to come,” notes the young voodoo priestess Epiphany Proudfoot (Lisa Bonet) to weary gumshoe Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke). Epiphany is speaking of her late mother’s mysterious suitor, whom Angel has been tracking from New York to New Orleans on the dime of sinister client Louis Cypher (Robert DeNiro). It is the mid-1950s, and, according to Cypher, it has been years since Favorite, a popular 1940s crooner, welshed on a business arrangement and disappeared. Cypher feeds Angel vague leads that take him deep into the alleys of Harlem, then to the wintry no-man’s land of Coney Island, and then to an upstate psychiatric hospital. Finally, Angel heads to the Big Easy, where his search will come to an end.
In humid New Orleans, Angel meets the bewitching Margaret Kruesmark (Charlotte Rampling), who has little to say about Favorite but is visibly shaken when asked about her relationship with him. Angel then approaches a Bourbon Street musician (Brownie McGhee), and it becomes clear people are afraid to speak about Favorite. Things get tense for Angel, who, to his shock, is being trailed by New Orleans authorities as a possible suspect in a series of violent, ritualistic murders that have befallen some of the people he has questioned. Angel’s investigation leads him further into the area’s voodoo culture and eventually into the arms of Proudfoot, who may hold the key to the veil of secrecy that surrounds Favorite.
Angel Heart, director Alan Parker’s brooding hybrid of hard-boiled detective yarn and Faustian occult tale, was extremely controversial upon its theatrical release in 1987. Subjected to censorship trimmings after the Motion Picture Association of America found its lurid, blood-spattered sex scene worthy of an X rating, Angle Heart quickly become a hot topic because the scene in question featured Bonet, who, at the time, was best known as the squeaky-clean Denise Huxtable on the family sitcom The Cosby Show. To make matters worse, show creator Bill Cosby made disparaging remarks about Bonet’s decision to appear in the film.
Now, the controversy nearly forgotten, Angel Heart has made its Blu-ray debut. While the dense and carefully plotted mystery is still quite intriguing, the horror elements remain vague and never quite feel as satisfying as they should. What continues to be most interesting about the film is its complex and intricate design. Parker smartly re-teamed with production designer Brian Morris, with whom he had collaborated on Pink Floyd The Wall, and with cinematographer Michael Seresin, BSC, a frequent, trusted collaborator (Birdy, Midnight Express, Fame).
As Parker explains in an interview on the disc, he and Seresin quickly devised a “black-and-white-in-color” look for Angel Heart. They wanted to create the feel of a classic film noir with occasionally lurid flares of color that felt appropriate for the occult-flavored narrative. From the nearly monochromatic opening scenes of a stray cat staring down at a frozen corpse on a dark New York street to the film’s color-drenched scenes of voodoo rituals and violent mayhem, Seresin’s evocative and sinister imagery is the film’s trump card.
Lionsgate Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray edition of Angel Heart has a striking image transfer that nicely captures the original look of the film. The HD image has rich, film-like appeal, with subtle shades of shadows visible within even the darkest scenes. The movie has never appeared on home screens with such a faithful rendering of its deep blacks. The excellent contrast also favors Seresin’s occasional use of warm colors. The well balanced, rich primaries that intentionally favor fire tones such as red and yellow are well rendered. The DTS HD audio mix is generally engaging, with solid tonality, good surround presence and some occasional punch on music cues.
Included on the Blu-ray is a series of supplements that appeared on an earlier DVD release. These include a rather bland and often self-congratulatory audio commentary by Parker, roughly 15 minutes of screen-specific commentary by Rourke, an eight-minute video interview with Parker, a 22-minute video interview with Rourke, Parker’s minute-long video introduction to the film, and the original theatrical trailer. All are presented in standard definition.
Angel Heart remains a mixed bag of tricks. Over the years since its release, this unusual and uneven film, filled with memorable images and a creepy music score by Trevor Jones, has gained a strong cult following. Both fans of the film and newcomers will be impressed with the visual quality of this Blu-ray presentation.