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Blu-ray Review: Cape Fear (1991)

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The 1991 remake of 1962’s Cape Fear was director Martin Scorsese’s first foray into the world of the conventional thriller. That’s not to say Cape Fear is conventional, because it isn’t. The 1962 film starred Robert Mitchum as ex-con Max Cady, who is out to get revenge on Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), the man responsible for putting him in prison. Mitchum’s Cady was an unrepentant cold-hearted sociopath with a one track mind. Mitchum’s cool demeanor and menacing presence was truly chilling. Cady’s vengeance against the noble Bowden is a classic tale of good vs. evil. Scorsese’s take on the story is less black and white. The narrative is driven by moral ambiguity rather than the triumph of good over bad.

In the update Max Cady is played by Robert De Niro who physically transformed himself into the brawny ex-con he portrays. This Max Cady is also menacing and unrepentant, but instead of the cool demeanor portrayed by Mitchum, De Niro’s Cady is a sadistic madman intent on punishing Sam Bowden to the fullest extent of his power. In this version Sam Bowden was long ago Cady’s defense attorney. Cady is on trial for the brutal rape of a 16-year-old girl. Bowden commits an illegal act of his own when he suppresses evidence of the victim’s promiscuity. The evidence may or may not have exonerated Cady, but in Cady’s mind it is the reason he was convicted. Cady, who was illiterate at the time of the trial, spent his 14 years in prison learning to read and eventually studying law. When he figures out Bowden’s deception his only plan is revenge.

Bowden (Nick Nolte) is not the noble character of the original film. Not only are his professional standards questionable, but he is also a philanderer who is apathetic to his wife and teenage daughter’s emotional struggles. The family has moved to the small town of New Essex to start fresh after Bowden’s affairs. Bowden’s wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) keeps herself busy but is clearly unhappy with life. Their daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) is teetering on the ledge between childhood and adulthood, and is fully aware of the discontent between her parents. Danielle is attending summer school due to being busted for having a joint in her locker. If it’s a warning sign her parents are unaware. They are only angry at her because parents are supposed to get mad about such things, but in reality they don’t seem to care all that much.

So the Bowden family is held together by the narrowest of threads when Max Cady enters their lives. It’s not hard to know who to root for. Max Cady is a bad guy. He is a sadistic abuser who thinks nothing of his own crimes. He is not mad because he was wrongly imprisoned for fourteen years, he’s mad because he thinks he should have gotten away with it. Emotionally it’s hard to blame Bowden for what he did, but intellectually we know the job of a defense attorney is to provide the best defense not help send his client to prison. So while it’s not hard to root against Max Cady it’s not so easy to root for Sam Bowden. We know he manipulated his trial and we soon find out he is flirting with a court clerk (Ileana Douglas) from his office. He is so disconnected from his family he refers to the family pet as “my wife’s dog.”

The person we might find ourselves rooting for is Danielle. It is Danielle who is telling the story through the framing device of a personal narrative assignment for English class. It is Danielle whose emotional needs have been abandoned by her parents leaving her vulnerable to the predatory Cady. In one of the best scenes of the film Danielle is confronted by Cady who is posing as her drama teacher. Having lured her to an isolated location the scene is wrought with suspense over what Cady might have in mind for the young Danielle. Lewis is excellent in the scene playing between fear and curiosity. Unlike her father she is innocent to the true horrors Cady represents.

At its core Cape Fear rises above typical horror movie cliché and becomes an intriguing character study. The characters are forced to confront their emotional demons as they deal with the unexpected presence of Max Cady in their lives. Scorsese uses Bernard Hermann’s score from the original film to punctuate the action. Hermann’s score, which was rearranged by Elmer Bernstein, creates ominous tone right from the beginning of the film. Before we know the horrors Max Cady intends to inflict on the Bowden the score lets us know all is not right in the world of Sam Bowden. It’s a brilliant move on Scorsese’s part to reimagine the work of Hermann in such an effective way.

Where Cape Fear falters only so slightly is in the ending. What was in the beginning an intricate tale of moral ambiguity becomes more conventional horror. The final battle between Bowden and Cady does become good vs. evil. In the end the audience can only want one possible outcome, and we are left to wonder what Sam Bowden learned, if anything, from his ordeal. Nonetheless the ending is exciting and it doesn’t take away from the overall entertainment value of the film. Cape Fear is a well done thriller with great performances.

The video is presented in 1080p VC-1 encoding with the original 2.35:1 ratio. The detail and colors are excellent on this disc. The black levels are good, which is important for this film because a lot of the key scenes happen at night in very low light. In the daylight scenes the colors are vivid and realistic. Cady’s right red sports car stands out on the screen. The detail is sharp. This is very apparent in the final scenes on the houseboat where everything is murky and dark. The action can still be clearly seen, which adds to the intensity of the scenes.

The sound is presented in a lossless DTS 5.1 mix. The mix creates an immersive effect. The surrounds are well used particularly with the water sounds that dominate the film. The score is at the forefront and is clear and bright. Sound effects like Cady’s too loud laughter in the movie theater ring out. The dialog is sharp and easy to understand. Overall the sound was perfectly done for this Blu-ray release.

There are no new special features for this Blu-ray. The features are all carried over from the collector’s edition DVD. These features include deleted scenes, a making of documentary, some behind the scenes featurettes, a feature about title sequence creator Saul Bass, and theatrical trailers. Most of the features are either 1.33:1 or non-enhanced. Overall the features are a bit of a disappointment because there isn’t anything new, but it is nice to have the making up and behind the scenes footage.

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About Sherry Lipp

Sherry Lipp is an entertainment and food writer who specializes in film and television reviews. She has published the gluten and grain-free cookbook Don't Skip Dessert.
  • Dr B

    What she fails to mention is that this was a ridiculously boring movie where at no point do you care about any of the characters or the outcome. Deniro fails to be a interesting villain and there is no good guy to root for. The Simpson’s version had more intrigue and suspense.