Once in a blue moon, though, there’s a re-make that not only takes the original to a new level of appreciation, but actually improves upon it. In musical terms, it’s Ike and Tina’s “Proud Mary.” In the cinematic forum, Martin Scorsese’s 1991 re-work of the B-movie thriller Cape Fear is another.
Max Cady (Robert DeNiro, lost the Oscar to Anthony Hopkins) is a recent parolee, fresh out of the joint after serving a fourteen year stretch for aggravated assault. During his trial, his lawyer, public…defender Samuel Bowden (Nick Nolte, the rich man’s Gary Busey) had pled the charge down from rape and aggravated sexual battery, which could have earned Cady a death sentence. Why, then, would Cady have such a vendetta toward the man who may have saved his life? In his fourteen years in prison, Cady has basically done two things: covered his body in tattoos, mostly scriptural and threatening in nature, and learned to read law books. After his conviction, he dismissed Bowden and acted as his own attorney and found something in his file that he feels Sam buried, and has since focused every fiber of his being on one final goal: to make his lawyer pay for the fourteen years he lost. As soon as he is released, Cady immediately sets about getting his long-planned revenge with an almost Ahab-ian fervor, making Bowden and his family the white whale, the perpetrator of his anguish.
Cady moves to the small Floridian town where Bowden, his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange), and their fifteen year old daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis, Oscar-nominated for the role) have relocated. He confronts Sam alone in a parking lot one day, and forebodingly warns Bowden that he’s ‘gonna learn about loss.’ That night, Leigh spots a shadowy figure on the wall that bounds the Bowden property, staring back at her through the bedroom window. A few days later, the Bowden family dog turns up dead, poisoned, even though he’d never been let out. No matter what Bowden suspects, he can’t prove it was Cady, so the police detective (a cameo by Robert Mitchum, who played Cady in the original) can offer him no legal recourse. They take flight to Cape Fear, scene of many blissful summers past, hoping against hope that the Cady issue will resolve itself with the help of the police. Cady, of course, won’t be gotten rid of that easily, and the film builds to a memorable and suspenseful conclusion that’s not to be missed.
Scorsese shows a real sense of how to generate ‘dread’ throughout the movie, using a single scene displaying Cady’s monstrous nature as a springboard to build a fantastic crescendo and drive to a memorable finale. He’s in top form as a filmmaker here, using dynamic and unorthodox camera techniques to disorient the viewer (the boat scene), or to convey a character quality (Cady upside down). The script (by Welsey Strick) also changed the characters quite a bit, the mitigating factor in getting Scorsese to do the picture. The original version had a very “normal” family, upstanding citizens terrorized by a crazed madman. This newer version has very “90’s” type of characters, including an ethically questionable lawyer, a cracking marriage and an angst-ridden daughter who was nearly thrown out of school for smoking marijuana. This depth not only allowed the actors to really get into their roles, but it made their characters, and hence their terror, more identifiable, more personal.
The performances in this movie are almost entirely overshadowed by DeNiro. He absolutely sizzles as the thickly-accented and monorail minded psychopath, a man who seems to have nitroglycerin for blood: he’s always one fast move away from exploding on anyone around him, ready to erupt and destroy anything and anyone who stands in his way. Lewis, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress that year, puts on a fantastic show as Danielle, her adolescent anger boiling and her horror perfectly spine-tingling. The minor problem I had with the film is that despite the fact that it’s a great movie, Cape Fear seems to go from sophisticated neo-noir suspense movie to somewhat cliched and over-done slasher horror methods. How many times can one character be ‘presumed dead only to return’ before you are EXPECTING a return?
Even with its few negatives, the 1991 version of Cape Fear stands as one of the better horror movies out there, boasting a good cast, a serious suspense crescendo, and vintage (as in before he soiled himself with Bringing Out the Dead) Scorsese direction. While he has most certainly done better work (too many to list, but there are at least five if his films that are better than this one), many directors would kill to have this as the best title on their resume. It might not be Silence of the Lambs, but Cape Fear is a fun film to turn out the lights and watch with the girlfriend (or boyfriend) and a big bowl of popcorn.
Cape Fear is equipped with a wonderful THX-approved, anamorphically encoded 2.35:1 widescreen picture, and there’s no denying that this picture looks incredible. Brighter hues like the gaudy red patterned shirts that Cady wears seem to jump off the screen, all while maintaining a razor sharp fidelity, never bleeding or streaking. Even in high contrast spots early on, where Cady sits on the wall and the fireworks go off behind him, there is no evidence of color shimmer. Black depth is perfect, and shadow detail is some of the best I’ve seen (check out the nighttime exteriors on the houseboat or the dark interiors of the house). The picture also seems to be a great advertisement for Scorsese’s film restoration and storage foundation; the print looks almost brand new, with no notable scratches or nicks and only two minor flaws that I noticed. Cape Fear is almost demo material. I was more than a little disappointed that there was no menu animation on either disc; the perfect animation for disc one is actually IN the movie. Just capture the rippling water and materialization of the highway sign that reads “Cape Fear.” (1.5)
The best thing (besides the extras) about making Cape Fear (1991) a two disc set is that it allows for the inclusion of both a Dolby 5.1 track AND the king of audio tracks, a DTS 5.1. The Dolby Digital 5.1 sounds great; the DTS, though, sounds phenomenal.Granted, the movie isn’t exactly a cornucopia of audio dynamic activity; there aren’t very many soundpans to work with, and those present are mainly of the boring lateral persuasion. Instead of a DTS track along the lines of Gladiator, this one is closer to a Cast Away nature. The surrounds aren’t involved in any explosions or amazing image work, they are used mainly to expand subtle atmospheric effects, like the torrential downpour of the squall on the river. The sound effects like the creaking of cicadas in the yard are so realistic, I almost closed my windows to shut them out. The rear channels also do a fine job of recreating the crowd noise in the July Fourth parade sequence. Dialogue in the front stage, regardless of if it’s rooted in the center channel or one of the many uses of off screen localization, is perfectly clear and sounds natural in the environments. The subwoofer stays dormant for much of the film, up until the houseboat scenes, where it handles the thunder and crashing thuds proficiently. The real winner in the audio department is the bone-chilling and almost jarring score, originally composed by longtime Hitchcock associate (that is until their well-publicized falling out just as Torn Curtain began) Bernard Herrmann, composed by Elmer Bernstein.
The Dolby 5.1 is a fine track in its own right, and wouldn’t draw complaints if there weren’t a DTS track included. It’s just not as exciting an experience with the Dolby Digital (it’s not as loud, either). The disc also includes a Dolby 2.0 track in both French and Spanish, as well as French, Spanish and English subtitles. I’d like to commend Universal for subtitling the entire supplemental disc in all three languages, as well. The rating speaks for itself; Cape Fear (1991) is reference quality audio.
The tenth anniversary edition of Cape Fear kicks off with an enormous one hour and twenty minute documentary, “The Making of Cape Fear.” As one might expect, just about everything one could want to know is covered over the eighty minutes. Scorsese discusses his attraction to the project as it gave him a chance to work in an ‘old school’ sort of Hollywood genre, and displays the almost child-like enthusiasm he has for his craft that makes him a director people want to work with. Screenwriter Wesley Strick details how he wrote the update with Spielberg in mind as the director, and how he flawed the characters to bring them into modern times. I found it interesting to hear the actors talk about how much of the movie was actually improvise. It’s a credit to Scorsese, and to the actors themselves, that he felt comfortable enough to trust them that way. The famous scene on the high school stage is apparently culled almost exclusively from the improv-heavy first take. As documentaries go, this one is very comprehensive and engaging.
This edition also features a selection of deleted scenes, but in an aggravating format. They aren’t separated from each other; by my count, there were nine scenes total, running just over nine minutes. The only one that I thought could have stayed in the picture was the third one, where Danielle sets up their history on the houseboat with a little more detail. I don’t expect Scorsese, who has sworn never to do a commentary (which I can respect), so he doesn’t introduce the scenes or explain why they’d been removed, but generally it’s because they don’t keep the story moving forward. Next up is a series of extremely short quasi-featurettes. The first is Behind the Scenes at the Fourth of July Parade, which runs about 130 seconds. The next is On the Set of the Houseboat, which is basically footage of a rehearsal in the 90-foot tank, running 100 seconds. A trio of photo montages are also included, and have finished footage including music interspersed. Along the same presentation lines is the section of matte paintings, running a scant forty six seconds and showing the places where mattes were used.
I really liked the section called opening credits. It’s basically a tribute to a legend among filmmakers that most of the movie-going public may never have heard of, a man by the name of Saul Bass. His trade was designing title sequences, or opening credits, and Cape Fear is considered among his greatest works. This DVD includes the openings to Vertigo, Psycho, and Spartacus, all of which Saul Bass designed. I always like when a DVD highlights one of the ‘unsung heroes,’ like the production designer or the cinematographer or the editor.
Finally, Cape Fear gets to the more mundane extra material. The film’s original 150 second theatrical trailer appears, but it’s not very well assembled. Seven text pages of production notes followed by the standard cast and crew readalongs round out the supplements. The disc also features three zero-value adders, those being DVD ROM features, recommendations, and a weblink. Disc one contains a THX optimizer option, too. Taking even those three zeroes into account, Cape Fear earns high marks in the bonus material. Congratulations and thanks go out to Universal for doing this set right.
Though Cape Fear is at times over the top and almost unbelievable, that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most enjoyable suspense movies of the last ten or twenty years, due in large part to one of the most entertaining performances in Robert DeNiro’s long and celebrated career. The movie is probably closer to a 4.25 than a regular old four, but that’s really just splitting hairs. The fantastic job Universal has done on the DVD, including well rendered video, reference quality audio and a copious extras package along with a captivating film make this set almost a ‘must-own.’ Throw Cape Fear in the shopping cart, fire up the air popper, turn the lights out, and hang on for the ride.
Special Features List
- Deleted Scenes
- Two Featurettes
- Photo Montage
- Matte Paintings
- Spotlight on Saul Bass
- Production Notes
- Cast & Crew Bios
- DVD ROM
- THX Optimizer