Horror Film Review: Cape Fear (dir by Martin Scorsese)


And I beheld as Scorsese remade a classic movie and, Lo, there was De Niro, decorated in india ink and speaking in tongues…

In 1991, Martin Scorsese remade the 1962 horror thriller, Cape Fear.  Both versions deal with the same basic story but each tells it in a very different way.  If the original Cape Fear was straightforward and to the point, Martin Scorsese’s version is so stylized that occasionally, it’s tempting to suspect that Scorsese might be parodying himself.  Zoom shots, negative shots, sweeping camera movements, Scorsese’s Cape Fear is full of all of them.  When a storm rolls in for the film’s operatic finale, the red clouds look as if their on fire.  Hell is coming to North Carolina, the film appears to be announcing.

While the plot largely remains the same, there are a few significant changes to the characters involved:

In the first Cape Fear, Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady was an arrogant, swaggering brute.  In the remake, Robert De Niro’s Cady is still an arrogant, swaggering brute but he’s now also an evangelical who is tattooed with bible verses and who speaks in tongues.  Cape Fear‘s approach to Cady’s religion is so over-the-top that it almost makes Stephen King’s approach to religious characters seem subtle and nuanced.  De Niro also speaks in a broad Southern accent.  Occasionally, De Niro gets the accent right but most of the time, he sounds like he’s in a Vermont community theater production of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.

In the first Cape Fear, Gregory Peck’s Sam Bowden was a lawyer who caught Max while Max was attacking a woman and who then testified against Max in court.  That’s not the case with the remake’s version of Sam Bowden.  Despite being played by Nick Nolte, the remake’s Sam Bowden is such a wimp that you can’t help but dislike him.  His wife (Jessica Lange) doesn’t trust him.  His teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis) resents him and his attempts to control her life.  In this version, Sam didn’t testify against Max in court.  Instead, Sam was Max’s lawyer and withheld evidence that could have secured Max’s acquittal.  What Sam didn’t realize is that Max would spend his time in prison studying the law and that Max would eventually figure out what Sam did.

As in the original film, Max shows up in North Carolina and proceeds to stalk the Bowdens.  Unlike Mitchum, who was all quiet menace, De Niro plays Max as being loud and obnoxious, the type who will sit in a theater, light a cigar, and intentionally laugh at the top of his lungs.  Max knows enough about the law that he knows exactly what he can get away with.  He poisons Sam’s dog.  He rapes Sam’s associate, Lori (played, in a heart-breaking performance, by Ileana Douglas).  In one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, he pretends to be the new drama teacher and toys with Sam’s daughter.

With the help of a private eye (Joe Don Baker), Sam tries to get Max out of his life.  Eventually, Sam pretends to be out-of-town, all as part of a ruse to get Max to break into his house so that he can be shot in self-defense.  It’s here that Nolte’s wimpy performance becomes an issue.  It’s impossible not to laugh at the sight of Sam, all hunched down and desperately trying to run from room to room without being spotted through any of the windows.

To a certain extent, I suspect that were meant to see Sam as being a rather pathetic figure.  Scorsese doesn’t really seem to have much sympathy for him or his dysfunctional family.  If anything, the film seems to argue that Sam has been a bad lawyer, a bad husband, and a bad father and Max has been sent as a type of divine retribution.  Only by defeating Max can Sam find forgiveness and hope to have the type of life that Gregory Peck enjoyed in the first movie.

Scorsese’s Cape Fear is an uneasy mishmash of styles.  Is it an art film, a religious allegory, a horror film, or just a generic thriller?  It doesn’t seem to be sure.  Cape Fear‘s a Scorsese film so, of course, it’s always going to be worth watching.  But there are times when the film definitely runs the risk of overdosing on style.  Sometimes, Scorsese seems to be trying too hard to remind everyone that he’s a legitimately great director and ends up getting so invested in the film’s visuals that he runs the risk of losing the story.  De Niro has some scenes in which he is genuinely chilling but then he has other scenes where he is basically just a live action cartoon character.  The same can be said of the film itself.  It’s always watchable.  At times, it’s rather frightening.  But other times, it’s just too cartoonish to be effective.

If anything, this remake proves that sometimes, it’s best to keep things simple.

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4 responses to “Horror Film Review: Cape Fear (dir by Martin Scorsese)

  1. I recently watched this one again and I think Scorsese was having a bit of fun. I see Cape Fear as his version of a slasher that occasionally verges on Camp, especially with De Niro’s performance. The same goes for b-movie stalwarts Joe Don Baker and Fred Thompson chewing up the scenery. Didn’t they have home alert systems in 1991? Simpsons did a brilliant parody.

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