[Exhumed & Exonerated] 'Cape Fear' (1991) - Bloody Disgusting
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[Exhumed & Exonerated] ‘Cape Fear’ (1991)

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Every decade has its ups and downs when it comes to cinema, no matter the genre.  Horror fans love to loft on high the output of the ‘30s & ‘40s, the ‘70s & ‘80s, and the more recent decades.  More often than not, however, the 1990s are labeled as the worst decade for the genre.  Not only that, but ‘90s horror tends to be written off as a whole, beyond a handful of undisputed classics.  The purpose of Exhumed & Exonerated: The ‘90s Horror Project, is to refute those accusations by highlighting numerous gems from the decade.  Stone cold classics will be tackled in this column from time to time, but its main purpose will be to seek out lesser-known and/or less-loved titles that I think deserve more attention and respect from fans.  Let the mayhem begin!

Cape Fear

Directed by Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Wesley Strick
Adapted from the original screenplay by James R. Webb
Based on the novel “The Executioners” by John D. MacDonald
Produced by Barbara De Fina, Kathleen Kennedy, Frank Marshall, Robert De Niro, and Steven Spielberg
Starring Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Joe Don Baker, Illeana Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Fred Dalton Thompson
Released on November 13, 1991

Almost a decade and a half ago, public defender Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) was so appalled by the crimes of his client, Max Cady (Robert De Niro), that he intentionally buried information that might have kept Cady out of prison. After he is released, Cady sets out to enact a terrible vengeance upon Bowden’s loved ones.  Can Bowden find a way to end Cady’s biblical vendetta or will all succumb to his wrath?

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Remakes are always a tricky thing. Change too much and people cry foul, wondering why you didn’t just make an original project out of it instead. Change too little and people wonder why you even bothered in the first place. Re-envisioning an existing film is a delicate balancing act and one which will ultimately never please everyone who loved the original.

Is Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear a better film than the 1962 original by J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, 10 To Midnight)? No, but it’s still a great film in its own right. Outside of plot and source material, they are actually quite different from one another. Whereas Thompson’s take on the MacDonald novel is a very classical thriller, Scorsese’s is an exercise in pure style. In fact, it goes so over-the-top with its Hitchcockian stylings that it is perhaps one of the most De Palma-esque films in existence not directed by Brian De Palma himself.

This is, of course, instantly off-putting to many fans of the original and understandably so. After all, I’m sure it came as a bit of a shock when this movie first arrived in theaters. Once you realize the fact that Scorsese was aiming for over-the-top cinema from the get-go here, however, it’s hard not to be utterly enthralled by what’s unfolding on the screen.

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Utilizing Bernard Herrmann’s fantastic original score (albeit reworked by Elmer Bernstein) again here was also a bit of a risk, but thankfully it fits just as well with this bombastic take as it did with the more grounded original. In the past decade, I have seen remakes and reboots reuse music from their original all too often in ways that do not fit the new film at hand. Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween certainly comes to mind, with reworked versions of Carpenter’s cues never properly gelling with the images on screen.

Matching Scorsese’s operatic visuals and Bernstein’s thundering score are the majority of the films performances. Robert De Niro’s take on Max Cady borrows not only from Robert Mitchum’s original incarnation, but also from another classic murderous Mitchum turn: that of serial killer Reverend Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter. Powell’s twisted religious beliefs are fully ingrained within De Niro’s take on Cady, right down to the “Love” and “Hate” knuckle tattoos that he sports. Toss in a thick Southern accent and you’ve got an unforgettable performance by De Niro that often borders on caricature, but never fully crosses that dangerous line.

Some have argued that a more saintly actor would have been a better choice for lead character Sam Bowden, but I think that Nolte does a fine job in the role. This take on Bowden is not a lily white one. In addition to his sabotage of his own client’s freedom, he’s also a man who has not only cheated on his wife (Jessica Lange) once before, but is on the verge of doing so again with a younger co-worker (Illeana Douglas). As a character with a morally gray sense of right and wrong, a sweaty and scared Nolte absolutely fits the part.

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The aforementioned Jessica Lange, who most horror fans now know best from her various roles on American Horror Story, is just as excellent as ever here. Leigh Bowden is an unhappy woman living within a broken down marriage and trying to make the most of it, both for herself and for her daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis, who is also great here). Backing them up are esteemed character actors such as Joe Don Baker (a sketchy private investigator) and Fred Dalton Thompson (Bowden’s increasingly annoyed boss).

I’d be an idiot if I didn’t bring up the fact that three of the original Cape Fear’s four male stars actually returned in supporting or cameo roles. Robert Mitchum, our original Max Cady, shows up the most, appearing as morally-gray cop Lt. Elgort.  Gregory Peck, our original Sam Bowden, cameos as a righteous attorney named Lee Heller and Martin Balsam (the original’s police chief) also cameos as a judge. Scorsese reportedly sought Telly Savalas (the original’s P.I.) for a role as well, reportedly for Bowden’s boss, but it didn’t pan out.

Speaking of history, the project was almost wholly different. In the earliest stages of development, Cape Fear was set to be directed by Steven Spielberg. While there’s no way of knowing if he would have ever secured them for it, Spielberg’s pie-in-the-sky choices for the leads were Harrison Ford (Sam Bowden) and Bill Murray (Max Cady). Spielberg reportedly ultimately decided against directing the project, partially due to its violent nature, and traded it to pal Martin Scorsese in exchange for Schindler’s List. A truly odd trade, but ultimately an historic one. Spielberg remained on board this film as a producer, albeit it an uncredited one.

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Martin Scorsese’s take on Cape Fear is not often listed among the best remakes in existence, let alone the best horror/thriller ones, but it should be. While not an instant all-timer like Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Carpenter’s The Thing, or Cronenberg’s The Fly, it is nonetheless a wonderfully thrilling piece of terror cinema that deserves more love and attention. The fact that it hails from one of our greatest directors is also a nice bonus!

Up Next: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)

Previously On…
Species | Mute Witness | Popcorn | Wishmaster | Alien 3 | Cast A Deadly Spell
Disturbing Behavior | The Sect | The Addams Family | The Ugly
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer | Arachnophobia | Ernest Scared Stupid
Cape Fear


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