A great horror movie makes more of an impression on the psyche than any other kind of film. Hell, even a bad horror flick can scar you for life. There’s a phrase that every seasoned horror fan loves to hear: “Have you ever seen . . . ?”
For the next 31 days, John E. Meredith will unearth some of his personal favorites that fell through the cracks, that are not so obvious, the kind that might even sneak up on you while you’re trying to sleep.
Angel Heart 1987, USA. Directed by Alan Parker. From the novel FALLING ANGEL by William Hjortsberg. Starring Mickey Rourke, Robert DeNiro, Lisa Bonet, Charlotte Rampling, Brownie McGhee.
“No matter how cleverly you sneak up on a mirror, your reflection always looks you straight in the eye.”
It seems pretty obvious where ANGEL HEART is going from early on. Maybe it’s just me. I’ve lived with this movie for so long that it’s hard to recall the first time, to honestly remember if I guessed the twisted secret at the heart of the film or not. Which is all quite funny, really, considering that it’s very much about the horror of memory. The sick fun for the viewer is more about watching the poor protagonist slowly, bloodily work his way back to the truth. There are no doubts about Ol’ Scratch, though. I called that one from his first scene. When Robert DeNiro appears toward the very beginning of the movie, I mean, really, who doesn’t know that he’s the Devil? The dude’s name is Louis Cyphre. At some point near the end he asks, “If I had cloven hooves and a forked tail would I have been more convincing?”
New York, 1955. All of the portents are already there. It’s Friday the thirteenth and yesterday’s snow covers the city like a curse. In the flea-bag offices of the Crossroads Detective Agency, the phone rings. Harry Angel, a Chandleresque private eye still suffering from wartime shell-shock, finally gets a case. Played by Mickey Rourke at his sweaty, slovenly best, Harry is already living in a kind of limbo. He goes to 666 Fifth Avenue to meet with the mysterious Cyphre, a well-dressed man who could be anywhere between thirty-five and sixty. Looking oddly like Martin Scorsese with a square-cut goatee, slicked-back hair, and long pointy fingernails, Cyphre says that New York is a city of outsiders and that he is one himself. A traveler, he says, as he waves away the smoke from his cigar. Peering at the detective that we still know very little about, he asks, “Do you by any chance remember the name Johnny Favorite?”
Harry does remember something. Favorite was a crooner with a swing band, an overnight sensation before the war began. Favorite was huge. Then he was drafted and went to serve his country in Tunisia. Cyphre tells Harry that there was an air raid by the Germans and Favorite was, somehow, one of the only survivors. He suffered facial and head injuries and was shipped home in a vegetative state, apparently all of his memories gone. Squinting at Harry suspiciously, Cyphre tells him that he gave Favorite some help at the beginning of his career. There was a contract, he says, and “certain collateral was involved.” But the veteran’s hospital where Favorite has been kept all of these past years has never let anyone see him. This is Harry’s case: find out if Johnny Favorite is still alive and, if so, where he’s been hiding. Now, seriously, how can even a first time viewer not know that our detective has been hired by the Devil himself?
As Harry begins his search for the truth about Johnny Favorite, he learns that some kind of switch has taken place. Favorite has vanished. He follows the trail to the crooner’s long-ago fiancé, Margaret Krusemark, a New Orleans high society lady once known as the Witch of Wellesley. This ultimately leads him to Favorite’s daughter, Epiphany Proudfoot (played by a sultry-as-hell Lisa Bonet, a couple zip codes away from the neighborhood where she lived in THE COSBY SHOW). A nineteen-year old voodoo priestess, she owns a shop of homeopathic cures and leads occult rituals in the park at midnight. Like any good hard-boiled detective, Harry soon falls into bed with her, with blood raining from the leaky hotel room ceiling. The bodies start to pile up around him, gruesomely slaughtered. Black magic and devil-worship abound. Censors go crazy and TV show fathers protest what their pretend daughters do with their time away from work.
Harry confronts Krusemark’s father and the old man imparts more truth: Favorite sold his soul to the Devil. Gasp! Then, with the help of all these people who have been ending up dead, he snagged some random soldier on New Year’s Eve, killed him and ate his still-beating heart. Instant soul theft, just add blood. Harry demands to know who the soldier was, but Krusemark does not know. He can only say that the soldier’s dog-tags were hidden inside an ancient urn topped with a three-headed snake. Harry knows this urn; it was on the shelf of one of the murder victims. Racing back to the scene of the crime, he hurls the urn at the wall. Silver flashes in the light. He reaches for the dog-tags and reads them . . .
In my mind, Louis Cyphre is there. With his long, unearthly fingers, he gently rolls an egg across a plate to break its shell. “You know,” he says, peeling away the surface to reveal the soft, vulnerable center, “Some religions think that the egg is the symbol of the soul.”
And then he takes a bite out of the egg.