CAPE FEAR (1991) – Review by Terrence Rafferty [The New Yorker]

The movie is a disgrace: an ugly, incoherent, dishonest piece of work. The original picture, directed by a skillful journeyman, J. Lee Thompson, is memorable without being especially artful.

by Terrence Rafferty

Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear is a remake of a bluntly effective 1962 thriller about a middle-class family— husband, wife, teenage daughter—who are terrorized by a devious, implacable psychopath. This looks like Scorsese’s attempt to make a crowd-pleasing commercial film, to apply his intense, kinetic style to the relatively undemanding job of scaring audiences out of their wits. The movie is a disgrace: an ugly, incoherent, dishonest piece of work. The original picture, directed by a skillful journeyman, J. Lee Thompson, is memorable without being especially artful. Thompson’s movie (adapted, by James R. Webb, from a John D. MacDonald pulp novel called The Executioners) is no-frills suspense. The story couldn’t be simpler. An ex- con named Max Cady arrives in a Southern town in search of the man he holds responsible for his imprisonment, the lawyer Sam Bowden. There’s no doubt that Cady is out for revenge. We understand that his dedication to his task is utterly single-minded, but he’s too smart to do anything that would allow the authorities to lock him up or run him out of town; he conveys his intentions to Bowden through suggestions and insinuations rather than explicit threats. Calmly and cruelly, he does everything he can to undermine Bowden’s sense of security. From the moment Cady appears in town, Bowden is constantly aware of him. Cady is furtive and unscrupulous, and he has the unnerving quick-strike elusiveness of a guerrilla fighter—the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t quality that can give human malevolence the aura of the demonic. He’s a monster, a bogeyman, and the original Cape Fear has the straight-ahead construction of a horror movie. It aims low, meaning only to produce the most fundamental. uncomplicated sort of tension: There’s something out there; we don’t know how to stop it; here it comes again. Bowden (played by Gregory Reck in his best pillar-of-rectitude manner) is so civilized and rational that initially he is almost helpless against Cady’s animal cunning; as the movie goes along, though, his rock-solid principles erode, and what replaces them is a fierce, basic instinct to defend himself and his family by whatever means may be necessary.

Like all truly scary movies, the original Cape Fear is essentially conservative, even reactionary. It works by evoking the childish, primal fears that are strong enough to override reason, moral discrimination, faith in the social contract —to make every consideration other than that of survival seem irrelevant, effete. A good part of the horror that movies of this sort induce is horror at the baseness and violence of our own reactions; we feel as if we had regressed to some primitive state of consciousness. For an educated middle-class audience —those of us. that is, who are meant to identify with the besieged Bowden family —the original Cape Fear is the guiltiest pleasure imaginable, more shameful than pornography; it brings out the vigilante, the redneck, the caveman lurking inside our liberal-humanist selves. There’s a strange purity to the dishonorable intentions of Thompson’s picture: It frames the conflict in the starkest terms and proceeds inexorably from there, without bothering to provide the distractions of wit, imagination, or psychological nuance. Its terrifying momentum is fueled by our fascination with Robert Mitchum’s Cady. Mitchum is amazing; he uses all his customary mannerisms for profoundly disturbing effects. The danger that Cady poses to the Bowden family is largely sexual: The crime he was sent up for was the rape of a teenage girl, and his plan for revenge clearly includes the violation of Bowden’s daughter. Mitchum’s characteristic air of relaxed masculine confidence takes on really foul overtones in Cape Fear. His star power has always depended on the hint of sexual threat expressed by his drawling, ambling, heavy-lidded presence. Here his lazy machismo is appalling, and yet, unsettlingly, he’s still attractive. He is the sole source of excitement in Cape Fear, and a constant reminder that the pleasure we’re deriving from this brutal thriller is corrupt, helplessly perverse. There’s a remarkable scene near the end of the picture in which Cady, who has traced the Bowdens to a houseboat on the Cape Fear River, peels off his shirt and slips quietly into the water, hoping to sneak up on his prey. In the moonlight, he looks simultaneously like a gleaming, bare-chested stud, a grimly determined commando, and some sort of prehistoric reptile—a cold-blooded predator that we thought had disappeared from the earth a few geological ages ago.

The 1962 Cape Fear isn’t complex —morally, psychologically, or cinematically. The picture makes a mockery of the very notion of complexity; it’s constructed to dissolve all emotional and intellectual distinctions, to throw everything back into the undifferentiated primal ooze of terror and survival. This is not an admirable aim. but the movie certainly has the courage of its low convictions: It never pretends that what it’s doing is good for us. Scorsese’s remake muddies the waters with self-consciousness. He has loaded Cape Fear with apparent moral ambiguities, facile ideas about guilt and redemption (themes that link the movie, forcibly, to his previous work), and explicit attempts to portray his scuzzy villain as a mythic nemesis. In the new script (which is credited to Wesley Strick), the Bowdens aren’t innocent victims of an irrational evil. The seeds of evil are within them, and Cady no longer seems to have come out of nowhere like a hurricane, an unforeseeable natural disaster; in this picture, he appears to have sprung forth from the Bowdens’ dirty little souls. Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) isn’t quite the straight arrow he was in the first movie. He once almost wrecked his marriage with his philandering, we learn, and it’s not clear that he has entirely reformed: He’s enjoying a heavy flirtation with a law clerk named Lori (Illeana Douglas) — a relationship teetering between friendship and romance. And he isn’t a paragon of legal integrity, either. The basis of Cady’s grudge against him has been changed from that of the original story. In the novel and the 1962 film, Bowden witnessed Cady’s assault on the teenager and gave testimony in court. In the new version, Bowden has not witnessed the crime; he was Cady’s defense attorney in the rape trial, and he suppressed evidence that could have led to his client’s acquittal. Bowden’s wife. Leigh (Jessica Lange), is now an edgy, unhappy-looking woman; she hasn’t forgiven her husband for his past infidelities, and she’s quick to accuse him of new ones. Fifteen-year-old Danielle Bowden (Juliette Lewis), Cady’s ultimate prey, has been given a sullen, pouty teenage sexuality, and she’s alienated from her parents. She’s more repelled by the hostile vibes between Sam and Leigh than she is by Cady’s advances to her. In one long, loathsome scene, Cady, posing as Danielle’s new drama teacher, comes perilously close to seducing her. Halfway into the sequence, she secs through the impersonation and realizes that this man is her family’s tormentor, but she isn’t turned off*; she kisses him anyway. And this Cady (Robert De Niro) is more than a sadistic, amoral cracker; he is also an avenging angel (his body is covered with tattooed biblical quotations like “Vengeance Is Mine” and with Christian symbols like the cross) and the trickster figure common to many of the world’s mythologies.

Of course, educated middle-class moviegoers like a little subtext in a genre picture: It adds spice. Picking up intimations of dark psychological “truths.” identifying mythic patterns and narrative archetypes — these arc ways of making ourselves feel smart while we enjoy dumb movies, of asserting our superiority to gut-level, cheap-thrills storytelling. They’re also ways of neutralizing the visceral, wholly irrational kick of powerhouse trash like the original Cape Fear: they enable us to dismiss the damning evidence of our emotional reactions —to deny that we’ve been lured, momentarily, into wholehearted acceptance of some pretty crude notions. Thompson’s Cape Fear turns the audience as well as the hero into yahoos, and it doesn’t supply us with any convenient excuses for our feelings. It ends, after a climactic battle in which Sam vanquishes the monster, with a brief, bleak shot of the Bowdens, their faces expressing exhaustion and degradation rather than triumph. The new Cape Fear is ail excuses. You couldn’t say that Scorsese’s treatment is a desecration of a great, pure work of the human spirit; it’s more like a consecration of something debased and profane. This Cape Fear is much flashier and more assaultive than the original (and it’s also, at two hours and eight minutes, a hell of a lot longer), but the Christian/mythological subtext that Scorsese dredges up and places in the foreground has the effect of increasing our emotional distance from the story. And it isn’t true subtext; it’s stuff that has been imposed on, rather than discovered in, the material. The idea that Cady is a monster who has bubbled up out of the unconscious of a dysfunctional family seems at first to be just glib, fashionable pop psychology. As the movie goes along, though. Scorsese keeps hammering away at the Bowdens’ frailties, and it becomes harder and harder to ignore the implication that they somehow deserve the vengeance that’s being visited on them. There’s a gruesome sequence in which Cady picks up Lori. the law clerk, in a bar and then handcuffs her in bed and beats her senseless, and the movie gives us to understand that Sam is indirectly responsible for this atrocity: Lori allowed herself to be seduced by Cady because she was frustrated by the unsatisfying ambiguity of her relationship with Sam. In this movie, flirting with a coworker can leave a guy with blood on his hands And what makes the long scene between Cady and Danielle so surpassingly ugly is that it turns the normal confused sexuality of a teenage girl into something unclean: As Danielle begins to respond to the advances of her would-be rapist, the movie unavoidably suggests that she, like the unfortunate Lori, is asking for it.

There’s no way to recast this story in Christian terms without reducing it to moral (and aesthetic) nonsense. The stain of original sin on the Bowdens’ souls seems to justify Cady’s viciousness. Sam’s breach of legal ethics in his conduct of Cady’s defense makes the lawyer’s later descent, first into shady extralegal tactics and then into plain violence, seem far less dramatic. The whole story is now constructed to illustrate the Christian idea that suffering is good for the soul: Battling Cady provides a kind of spiritual catharsis for the Bowdens. In the end. they’ve been reborn: They’ve wrestled with the demons of their corrupt natures and exorcised them, spewed the poison out of their mouths. If that devil, that tattooed man. had not come along. Lord knows what might have become of these lost children; they would still be wandering in the wilderness of sin. The Christian implications that Scorsese lays on this elemental story actually serve to make the message more reactionary: Violence is no longer just a matter of survival —it’s now the instrument of salvation. (If Scorsese were making Taxi Driver today, would he present Travis Bickle’s spooky calm in the aftermath of the massacre without irony, as if this serenity were a sign of grace?) These ideas may be among Scorsese’s most deeply held convictions, but they aren’t integral to this kind of movie or this particular story. The new Cape Fear is still, at heart, a picture whose sole aim is to give its audience huge, bowel-loosening shocks; the veneer of moral seriousness and psychological complexity that Scorsese brings to the enterprise feels like an attempt to convince himself that he’s not doing what he’s doing.

It’s hard to find the pleasure, or value, in a horror picture that keeps providing us with high-toned justifications for our basest reactions — insisting that the grueling experience it’s putting us through is really meant to edify us. De Niro’s frenetic but thoroughly uninteresting performance is emblematic of the movie’s inadequacy. He’s covered with tattooed messages and symbols, but he doesn’t seem to have a body. We could feel Mitchum’s evil in all its slimy physicality; De Niro’s is an evil that we merely read. Despite the movie’s relentless pace and the ingenious staging and editing of its violent sequences. Cape Fear has a peculiarly antiseptic quality. It drags us into the mud and then tells us that we haven’t got dirty. Our messy primitive responses have been cleaned up, rationalized away; we’re guilt free—washed in the blood of the bogeyman. The pretense of moral purity in Scorsese’s Cape Fear is far more sordid than the honest, un-self-conscious shockmongering of the original. Scorsese seems to want to make a gut-wrenching thriller and yet duck the responsibility for the sleazy thoughts it might churn up in us. He’s asking absolution for the wrong sin. He shouldn’t be ashamed of having made a mass-audience horror movie; he should be ashamed of having made one that sends its viewers home feeling morally complacent and intellectually superior.

The New Yorker, December 2, 1991


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