Angel Heart (1987): The Atmosphere

Angel Heart was filmed, for the most part, on location in New York and Louisiana. Even the interior shots – like the hotel room where Rourke and Bonet have crazy bloody sex, and Charlotte Rampling’s red-walled apartment – were actual rooms in actual buildings, not sets. Of course they were dressed up for the film, but they were already existing spaces. Filming in this way is highly difficult. You have to squeeze your camera crew in, you have to make room for equipment, you can’t just knock down walls (although it has been done), it limits your choices. That’s why Parker likes to work that way. He likes the limits. In some of the scenes, there was only room for a cameraman, Parker, and the cinematographer (Michael Seresin). That’s why the film has such a sense of reality. You can smell New Orleans. You can feel the wet. You are in humid air. Your fingertips are grimy. These are not sets. This is real. When they needed to re-vamp something for the purposes of their film, they did. For example, the scene where Rourke meets up with DeNiro in the huge church in New Orleans – that was a deserted church that was still very much intact with the stained glass windows still there, all the pews, etc. But the rest of it was completely dilapidated. So the film crew went in there and put in a gleaming tile floor, re-created an altar, put up a bank of candles, etc. It ended up being a blessing (even though it was a pain in the ass) because getting permission to film in actual working churches (especially for a movie that is, uhm, about the freakin’ devil) is very challenging.

Location scouts are crucial. Parker and Seresin and the scouts traveled all over New Orleans to look for perfect places. And then it was up to Seresin to make it pop off the screen, to ooze with atmosphere, to insist upon the audience’s psyche: “I am real. You are here.”

The atmosphere of the film, with its voodoo craziness and occult presence, is the best of the sensibility that I would call “campy”. “Camp” is not just drag, or divas. It is also an over-the-top immersion in something that might seem artificial. It is investment, total 100% investment, in the surface of things. Plumbing the depths of meaning in what something looks like.

That’s the atmosphere of Angel Heart.


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