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Shadowvision: “ANGEL HEART

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Welcome to Shadowvision, a regular column in which Fangoria.com revisits modern horror films in black-and-white. The purpose is to analyze these films through a new lens, seeing if the classically informed viewing experience will give a new angle to familiar images. If you’d like to watch along at home, it’s simple: go into your TV settings and desaturate the picture completely, then adjust the contrast and brightness to fit either standard or high definition.

I’ve always been fascinated with the work of Alan Parker. Diverse in output, Parker always commands a certain admiration in his ability to blend genres, whether it be small tonal additions or outright melding of very separate aesthetics. It’s an experimental approach, yet one that’s often paid off throughout his impressive filmography, and this week’s Shadowvision covers perhaps the best example of Parker’s effective genre hybrid.

Based on the novel FALLING ANGEL by William Hjortsberg, ANGEL HEART has been commonly described by horror lovers as the first and only “voodoo noir” by infusing psychological terror and voodoo mythology elements into the classic hardboiled detective story. Clever, unsettling and genuinely scary, ANGEL HEART digs explicitly into the nightmarish underbelly of every noir story, which ostensibly tell tales of morally complicated people in the midst of good and evil. In that sense, ANGEL HEART was the perfect fit for a black-and-white translation, especially considering Parker’s penchant for harrowing visual poetry.

Technically speaking, ANGEL HEART is shot like a true noir tale so the bare minimum of tinkering is required. By desaturating the images, the whites and shadows should naturally pop off the screen from the first shot forward. There’s no real use in raising the contrast or the brightness unless you’re experimenting in standard definition, in which the crush during the darker scenes may be more recognizable.

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The first major change in a black-and-white ANGEL HEART is how obvious the noir elements are. From the dark cityscapes to the charming, seductive antihero at the forefront of the story, ANGEL HEART immediately hinges more visually on the crime film aspects when color is removed from Michael Seresin’s crisp cinematography. In fact, Seresin’s camera work reflects the stark, hazy worlds of THE BIG COMBO, THE BIG HEAT and NIGHT AND THE CITY rather than the horror output of the time, save for possibly the more fantastical sequences of HELLRAISER.

Meanwhile, later visual changes from Seresin’s intended photography almost change the narrative completely. In its normal presentation, ANGEL HEART operates as a hot, creepy film, emphasizing a greenish-yellow color scheme in the New Orleans sequences and shades of blue in the New York scenes. However, in black-and-white, the temperature of the film swaps empathetic and relentless sweatiness for seductive smokiness against a haunting, heavily-shadowed backdrop. In fact, this is especially effective during the New Orleans scenes, as the encompassing light and purity of the daytime is now contrasted by the horrifying evil within the inescapable night.

While ANGEL HEART’s philosophical and spiritual noir is accentuated magnificently by the monochrome transfer, the more horrific elements of the story do become somewhat lost in the fold. The sporadic descents into Angel’s subconscious memories and hallucinations are still as effective as ever, if not more so, but the overall looming terror of the visuals feels somewhat detached to the narrative. Without color, the empathetic aspects of the story are limited since the sense of reality is removed from Angel’s plight, and the dreamlike aesthetics are never quite as scary as they are when presented in color.

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The work of Parker and Seresin here is so experimental in its ambition and focus however, that the black-and-white elements almost feel more organic to the story. Parker’s understanding of how much horror to inject into the story is directly wired into his understanding of the genre audience, knowing a terrifying reveal is all the more scary when the viewer is still piecing together a psychological puzzle. For this reason, Parker and Seresin construct the visuals in a way where suspense, sex and eerieness coexist ominously in the strategically shadowed frames.

Likewise, the actors in the film are aided by the visual scheme, as their performances uniquely resemble that of classic filmmaking. In the corner of noir, Mickey Rourke’s performance is incredibly indicative of the flawed and psychologically weary leading men typical of the subgenre, even if his delivery feels more naturalistic and emotional in presentation. In the corner of horror, Robert De Niro’s antagonistic turn feels partially inspired by the omnipresent spiritual terror of expressionist genre film, as as well as the dignified brilliance of past reflections on that type of character in horror. In fact, the only actor that appears slighted by the black-and-white translation is Lisa Bonet, whose incredibly physical and sexually-charged performance feels less cohesive to her quiet and subtle dialogue scenes.

This writers’ instinct points to recommending this experiment for ANGEL HEART, as there’s much value in the way of rewarding imagery as there is in its normal presentation. With any other filmmaker, ANGEL HEART might not have had so many curious influences yet Parker’s narrative sensibilities completely meet the needs of a black-and-white exhibition. And while the film may be more violent and sexually explicit to truly be a nostalgic noir tale, the core moral conundrum of ANGEL HEART is noir-informed and that by itself provides enough misdirection for the horror elements to creep out from the heavy shadows.

Recommended for Black and White Consumption?: Yes.

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About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Content Manager for FANGORIA, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, a graphic novel and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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