Cape Fear (1991)
Horror movies can goose you with such unreal, goopy effects that buying them on video to watch and rewatch can be a ghoulish kick. But what if the bogeyman is more like Jeffrey Dahmer than Freddy Krueger? How ”collectible” are movies about all-too-realistic monsters? That’s the big question raised by the video release of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, a steroid-enhanced remake of the 1962 thriller about an ex-con, Max Cady, who targets a family for some deadly serious sexual harassment.
Before the film starts, there’s a trailer hawking used rental copies of the new Cape Fear (stores will soon sell them for about $15). A second ad pitches the original Cape Fear as a shrink-wrapped, priced-to-buy title. But who’s being targeted — the Addams Family? While both Cape Fears offer queasily convincing portraits of evil that make hair-raising rentals, they’re not exactly titles to be welcomed as permanent guests in your home. That’s especially true of the Scorsese version, which builds in its first third to a scene that’s hard to watch even once: Grabbing the arm of a woman (Illeana Douglas) he has met in a bar, Cady (Robert De Niro) handcuffs her to his bed and inflicts unspeakable injuries, rendered in close-up detail.
Scorsese makes Cady such a howling, supernaturally destructive demon that he’s less believable than the Cady played by Robert Mitchum under the relatively staid direction of J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone). Sleepy-eyed Mitchum has a quiet malevolence that flares suddenly; De Niro is more predictable, a perpetual tornado of anger. Yet every other character is far more compelling in the Scorsese version. As played by Gregory Peck in the original, Cady’s prey, lawyer Sam Bowden, is a dull paragon of pious indignation; Nick Nolte makes him a hypocritical survivalist who’s not above doing wrong to achieve right. Sam’s wife and daughter, mere helpless-female ciphers in the hands of Polly Bergen and Lori Martin, are fleshed out superbly by Jessica Lange and Juliette Lewis in the remake, barely suppressing their anger at Sam’s philandering.
Of course, the new Cape Fear‘s rejiggered scenario improves things too; there aren’t nearly as many no-brainer, why-don’t-they-just-call-the-cops plot holes. It’s in the visual and behavioral details, though, that Scorsese’s gift for making horror palpable shines through. His staging always creates a subtext to the action. When Sam flirts shamelessly on a racquetball court, telling the law clerk who’s got a crush on him that she should ”snap her wrist” on her backhand, the counselor demonstrates by grabbing her arm — the same one Cady will later break.
Such touches stand out partly because Cape Fear‘s wide-screen photography has been meticulously adapted for TV’s squarer shape to Scorsese’s specifications. The director even inserted one reaction shot of Lewis that wasn’t in theatrical prints to clarify a bit of action that cropping would have made incomprehensible. More than a few shots still suffer in translation, but the swooping, kinetic virtuosity of the camera moves is preserved.
Still, the question remains: Will you really want to own either version of this movie, to endure the whole horrible baptism again and again? That sounds like a cruel and unusual punishment only Max Cady could dream up. Remake: A-