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If you’ve never seen Angel Heart, there’s still a good chance you’re aware of its notoriously explicit sex scene between Lisa Bonet, who was nineteen and playing seventeen, and Mickey Rourke, who was thirty-five and playing washed-up. There’s obviously a conversation to be had about whether the scene was exploitative, and about the fact that Bonet’s most vocal critic at the time was America’s Dad, Bill Cosby. But for now I don’t want to lose sight of how extraordinarily weird that scene is, and how it fits within an even weirder movie. And consider yourselves forewarned: this movie has a twist that I am going to spoil, since there’s no way to talk about the film without it.
Rourke plays Harry Angel, a sleazy New York private investigator in the 1950s. He’s hired by a Louis Cyphre (Robert DeNiro), a weirdo with a cane and long fingernails, to find a man named Johnny Favorite, a pop singer who disappeared with some “property” that belongs to Cyphre. Harry dutifully investigates the trail of breadcrumbs, which leads him to New Orleans, where he meets Johnny’s ex-fiancée Margaret (Charlotte Rampling), his illegitimate daughter Epiphany (Bonet), and his musician buddies. People keep turning up gruesomely dead after Harry talks to them, which slows the process considerably. A connection emerges between Johnny and the occult: Margaret liked to moonlight as a Coney Island fortune-teller, and Johnny’s now-dead lover Evangeline (mother of Ephiphany) was a voodoo priestess.
The twist, which I will now spoil, is that Harry is actually Johnny and Louis Cyphre is actually Satan (surprise!), to whom Johnny has sold his soul. In one very shouty exposition dump, Margaret’s father explains that Johnny tried to renege on the deal by stealing the soul of a young soldier, Harry Angel, and assuming Harry’s identity and memories, thus making it possible for our hero to be the killer all along without knowing it.
Twist endings were not a dime a dozen in 1987, and that particular twist wasn’t played out like it is now. But it’s still a twist that I can’t stand. Not only does Harry/Johnny not remember the Satanic ritual that migrated his soul into someone else’s body in the first place, he doesn’t even remember the many murders he commits over the course of the film, under the “direction” of Satan. I never like the implication that our hero has been living in some kind of fantasy land to which he or she will presumably return once the events of the film are over.
However, if you can get past the convoluted machinations of the plot, the film has a look and feel that I was not expecting and really enjoyed. The first act follows the traditional film noir template of a gumshoe being hired to do a shady job by a dubious character. It beautifully captures the seediness of 1950s New York, including a scene at Coney Island in the wintertime in all its decrepit glory. But as we go further down the rabbit hole, the discordant score and lurid color palette reflect the insanity of the world Harry is plunging into. The few brief dream sequences are so visually arresting that they don’t interrupt the flow of the movie—they’re more like acid flashbacks than narrative digressions. The surreal visual style reminded me very much of David Lynch; but where his films tend to have an innocence at their core, Angel Heart explores the gradual disillusionment of a man who has already committed crimes so foul he can’t even acknowledge them, ending with his literal descent into hell.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Angel Heart’s notorious sex scene, complete with screeching music and blood dripping down the walls, which today seems more amusingly weird than shocking. In fact, that scene made me far less uncomfortable than the awkward flirting that precedes it, in which Harry observes clumsily that Epiphany is beautiful and she accepts this comment with what looks like mild annoyance. If we’ve learned anything from film noir, it’s that interactions like this always end with the two participants in bed together. But once we find out that Harry is Johnny, the implications of the scene become even more horrifying. Obviously that’s the point; by now we know there’s nothing left for Harry but suffering and death. But there’s no getting around how creepy it is for a thirty-five-year-old man to hit on a seventeen-year-old girl, regardless of whether they’re secretly related or not.
Angel Heart isn’t perfect and it’s certainly not a feel-good movie, but if you feel like taking the plunge into some genuinely dark weirdness, it’s worth a watch.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.