Angel Heart Review
As someone who has been an avid fan of cinema for almost as long as they can remember, there are certain combinations of sight and sounds that evoke a strong sense of a bygone era in me. Combine a shot of a smoky New York street at night with the sound of a saxophone for instance, and I’m reliving the 80s neo-noir movement all over again. One of the most distinctive films of that era is Angel Heart, an extremely stylish private eye story that follows an investigator through a case that is slowly dragging him into hell. Mickey Rourke plays Harry Angel, a small time detective hired by an ultra-mysterious man named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro in a wonderfully suave and passively sinister role) to locate the whereabouts of a reasonably successful pre-war crooner named Johnny Favorite. It seems like a fairly innocuous missing persons case, but soon the people who Angel questions about Favorite’s whereabouts start turning up viciously murdered, with the trail leading to New Orleans where a Satanist and Voodoo Priestess have ties to Johnny’s past.
With a rather mundane set up and a narrative that basically follows Angel as he moves from one location to the next, talking to one person and the next, then stumbling across the dead bodies a few minutes later, it’s fair to say that the murder mystery aspect of Angel Heart isn’t exactly involving. The main goal of the story is in building up to an epic twist that would see the narrative craftily straddling two rather dissimilar genres - which is fine IF you’re not expecting any twist, but time has robbed Angel Heart’s already slight narrative of this pretence. Thanks to films like The Usual Suspect, Fight Club, and The Sixth Sense, today’s audiences are looking for clues the instant they sit down to watch a thriller, and Angel Heart’s clues are frequent and may as well be signposted in huge neon lights by today’s standards of narrative trickery.
However, Angel Heart is chiefly a mood piece: an intensely brooding thriller full of visions and portents that make the viewer question Harry Angel’s sanity or whether he could be sleepwalking his way through one creepy dream. Alan Parker frequently attempts to startle his audience with unexpected imagery and sounds, or caress the viewer with eerie abstractions and barely perceivable whisperings. These stylised supernatural leanings may be primarily there to unsettle, but they also bring unexpected depth to multiple viewings because once you know the details of Johnny Favourite’s life, only then can you understand each element and recurring motif of these spooky interludes - some of which are extremely stylish and can switch from abstract to graphic imagery whilst also merging spirituality with the occult. They certainly go a long way to glossing over any shallowness the story may have.
The Disc: Presented in the film’s original 1.85:1 ratio on a BD-25 with an AVC encode, the transfer of Angel Heart isn’t exactly bad, but it is pretty mediocre. Detail isn’t great, the transfer is particularly soft (though above standard definion) and the fact the film is shot with insufficient lighting means shadow detail is pretty poor, but blacks aren’t particularly deep so the image looks murky. Contrast levels are naturalistic with brightness a little low. My main beef with the transfer is the low bitrate, the film doesn’t even max out a BD-25, which for a film that’s nearly 2hrs long is pretty silly. As a result there is obvious compression noise in blacks and colours, and banding is also present.
Grain is omnipresent throughout and in general appears a moderate-to-heavy, poorly defined layer. This is probably down to the low bitrate, but the general softness and clumpy nature of the grain could point towards noise reduction being in play, although I’m not completely convinced this is the case. Angel Heart has a rather naturalistic, muted colour palette that for the most part is reasonably well represented by this transfer - There are moments when the scheme becomes more vibrant and colours become satisfyingly bold, but colour balance can be inconsistent, shifting heavily towards red at times which results in extremely flushed faces and even affects hair colour. There’s a scene 91 minutes in where Harry Angel is being quizzed by cops where you can watch Mickey Rourke’s hair shift from brown to red. In some scenes you may spot blue or red around certain objects, the reasons for these artefacts appear to be down to diffraction of through the camera lens rather than the transfer itself. There are also instances of pretty bold edge enhancement halos that are most certainly not down to how the film was shot!
The default audio option is an English LPCM 2.0 track that sounds reasonably good; bass is weak and in general the track sounds a little hollow but other than that I was pleased with how Angel Heart sounds - audio dynamics are pretty solid and although the soundstage isn’t particularly expressive the moody score sounds effective enough. More impressively the audio has been nicely cleaned up and hiss is only audible on occasion and never that overtly, while dialogue tears a touch but remains nice and clear throughout – the dialogue Parker wants to be clear, that is! Also present is an English DTS-HD MA track that offers a louder and more bass-heavy sonic presentation, but the volume has been boosted too much and audio hiss is a serious, omnipresent problem. Stick to the LPCM, you can’t go wrong with that. Sadly no extra features are present on this disc - not even a trailer, nor are there any subtitles at all, which just puts the cherry on the top of the barebones, cut price feel of this release.
Censorship Issue: Back when it was due to be released into cinemas in the UK, Angel Heart was submitted to the BBFC in its uncut form with the edits previously made to a sex scene on behest of the MPAA reinstated. However the BBFC had a problem with a brief shot of a cockfight around 90-minutes into the film, and this scene has since been left out of every home video release of Angel Heart here in the UK. This Blu-ray release is no different, it does contain the full 113 minute version of the film with the uncut sex scene, but the cockfight has been left out. The edit is completely seamless and occurs around 95m:45s when Angel walks past a stage where a man is skinning the carcass of a chicken. In the original edit that scene cuts to a close up of a cockfight taking place on the stage, then cuts to a shot of a racing horse rearing up. In the UK edit we cut straight from Angel walking past the stage to the horse rearing up.