Halloween Top 13: The Remake- #6: Cape Fear (1991)

Hello and welcome back. We’re down to number six on the countdown and the hits keep on coming. Today’s film is one of those rarest occasions in film wherein an actor in a remake nearly eclipses the originator of the role. It’s such a rare thing that I can only come up with two examples off the top of my head, Heath Ledger whose manic, psycho Joker in The Dark Knight made everyone forget about Jack Nicholson’s demented clown in Tim Burton’s Batman and today’s film, Cape Fear. In the original film, Robert Mitchum, one of the baddest mofos to ever grace the screen, gives a thrilling, understated performance where the anger and hate that his character feels for Gregory Peck’s lawyer boils right under the surface. It is a highly effective film that ranks up there with the best thrillers and Robert Mitchum as one of the best villains in screen history. Twenty nine years later, only one  man could outmatch Mitchum for pure menace took on the role. Of course, I am talking about Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear.

Now, as I’ve already mentioned that the original film was a thriller, you may be wondering why I put Cape Fear (1991) on a horror countdown.  While Mitchum is pure menace, subtly provoking the Peck and his family until the climatic ending, Robert De Niro is pure nut job, and he‘s got the brutal murders to prove it. It's just not a thriller if the killer is biting chunks out of people's face. It boils down to this. If Robert Mitchum started hounding me I would be worried, concerned, and even a little bit scared of what he might do. If Robert De Niro covered in tattoos with his hair slicked back wearing a wardrobe fifteen years out of date came gunning for me and my family, I would be absolutely terrified. I wouldn’t just. go to my house boat; I would leave the country at the least. I would be calling Richard Branson and booking passage on one of his space flights. That’s where the distinction lies to me. Thrillers movies are tense, suspenseful, and  the threat of murder rides under the surface for ages, while horror films are full of people who will flat out kill you with a piano wire while dressed as a middle aged Latina housekeeper and leave you bleeding on the floor.

The later of those two descriptions fits Max Cady (De Niro), an ex-con just released after doing a fourteen year stretch for the rape of a sixteen year old girl. While in prison, Max has had plenty of time to get things done. He’s got his body covered with tattoos, worked out to become a physical specimen, and learned how to read. This underestimation of the thriving literacy programs in the nation’s jails becomes the undoing of Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) who, fifteen years ago, was a public defender in Cady’s case. Bowden didn’t have his client’s best interest at heart when he buried the promiscuous sexual history of Cady’s victim in order to assure  conviction, and the newly literate, newly freed Cady takes some exception at this oversight. He starts a premeditated campaign to terrorize Bowden, his wife (Jessica Lange), and daughter (Juliette Lewis) without violating the law. The local cops (headed up by Robert Mitchum in a great reversal of roles) can’t do anything for him, even nail him for vagrancy. Bowden chooses to hire a private investigator (Joe Don Baker)first to follow the ex-con around, but when that ends up not working, the P.I. hires a gang of thugs to beat up Cady. When all Bowden's plans come unraveled, he picks up his family and takes them to the safety of their houseboat moored in Cape Fear, NC, but Cady follows them (really, really closely) intending to put and end to the cat and mouse game once and for all.

I doubt I need to go into much detail about the directing of this film. Martin Scorsese doesn’t need my help for people to think he’s a great director. This has long been one of my favorite of his films because of what a good remake of 1962 Cape Fear it was, but also the influences of Mitchum’s film Night of the Hunter and the greater works of Alfred Hitchcock. From the moment when Hitchcock collaborator Saul Bass’ credits appear on the screen, it sets up the mood and tone of the picture. Throughout there are little touches, such as the staged non-reality of the beginning of their boat ride, that bring to mind the Master of Suspense's style. This feeling is just hammered home as Cape Fear retained the soundtrack to the original film by composer Bernard Hermann, also a frequent cohort of Hitchcock. While it is the same melodies from the original film, Scorcese uses it to greater effect letting the music build suspense even in the most mundane parts of the film. It is a rare occurrence that a composition like this would survive to appear in the remake, but it was a masterful touch to decide upon its inclusion.

While the filmmaking is near perfection and the soundtrack is dripping with suspense, the real stars here are actually the stars for once. I could go on and on about Robert De Niro and how brilliant he was in the role, and he was. However, as a Southerner, I have to say that while sometimes his accent was often spot on, but it wavered wildly in how thick he laid it on and it did occasionally drop. De Niro was nominated for the Oscar for his role as Max Cady, and probably would have won had it not been for another horror figure, Hannibal “The Cannibal” Lector.  Nick Nolte, an actor I don’t usually have much love for, is great in Cape Fear, and perfectly brings to life this tortured and extremely guilty, man of the law. Juliette Lewis, also nominated for an Oscar, convinced me she was just like every dumbass teenage girl I’ve ever met, eager to get with the meanest, jerkiest guy she can meet. I’m usually not a fan of Lewis (except her comedy music….what do you mean it’s not comedy?), but she always impresses me in this film with the depth if her character. Supporting players Joe Don Baker, Jessica Lang, Illeana Douglas, and Fred Thompson all do their part to make this character driven film a perfect example of casting.

While Cape Fear (1991) works because it doubles down on nearly every aspect of the story, the ’61 film casts a much longer shadow than Scorcese’s remake. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I don’t find it to be an influential film, but rather one as guilty of being  highly influenced as Tarantino‘s last film. (The wonderful thing about QT is that no matter how far down the road this happens to get read, it will still be true.). The style, the substance, and the story of Cape Fear fit together perfectly to thrust the characters into a literal storm by the film’s end, and De Niro’s Max Cady showed that no one does bad better than Bob. The only thing that holds this film back is it’s ponderously long scenes of marital struggles between Nolte and Lang. By the time that two hours and eight minutes had rolled around, I really started to feel like there was a fat fifteen minutes in there somewhere that just needed to go because it really throws the pace off.

Bugg Rating

You know what’s really on pace though, the Halloween Top 13: The Remake (I need a shorter name for my event, sheesh!) Today I have a list from my friend Christine over at Fascinations with Fear. Lemme tell you a few things about Christine. Number one, she’s awesome. Number two, she’s a badass. Number three, she is constantly writing posts that I wish I had thought of first. If you haven’t been following her 31 Days, 31 Faves, then you’ve been missing out. She’s been picking all the best films to talk about this month, and she picked out quite a number of good remakes for her list……

Here's my list - hope to hell I didn't elaborate too much. Seemed kind of long when I finished. Yikes. I've chosen 8 that I'm particularly fond of.

Last House on the Left (2009) - To me, the 1972 version, while a classic, is just too gritty and too erratic. One minute they're bopping around with silly music, the next they are raping and disemboweling. At least in the updated film, you grow to actually care about the characters and the film flows a bit better. You feel their pain, as well as the anguish of the teenage son who is forced to participate not in the rape itself, but certainly the crime. It's brutal, yes, but not overdone. Though the end scene of the head in the microwave is ridiculously excessive.

My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009) - I am in love with the campy original (1981), but feel this modern renovation is actually quite good. If you were seeing it without knowledge of the prior film (which I'm sure there are teenyboppers out there that fit that bill), you'd be pretty impressed and duly freaked out. Nothing screams frightening like a man in a miner's mask wielding a pick axe. Ouch! Again, liked the characters - and this film was miles better than the Friday the 13th rehash OR either of the Tx. Chainsaw re-dos.

The Blob (1988) - Those pesky meteorites! An update of the 1958 'monster' classic was actually really, really good. Saw this one at the theater, even though at the time I really couldn't imagine something with that kind of title would be any good. I was wrong. These guys did a bang-up job with the special effects, and it really does carry the whole film.

The Fly (1986) - Speaking of special effects! Brundlefly had me missing sleep for days! When he started peeling off his fingernails - Gah!! The original is so completely dated, and though this makeover veered pretty far from the '58 sci-fi flick, it was a perfect remake, completely changing things up in a good way, and scaring the pants off audiences everywhere. Note to self: I need to get this on DVD, stat! Be afraid! Be very afraid!

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) - Generally I'm not one for sci-fi...much. But call me a believer, this film is eerie. The thought of mankind being replaced with 'pod-people' is probably pretty much the reason I don't get into sci-fi. I don't want to know that that kind of thing can happen. The sight of Donald Sutherland at the end, making that awful face and pointing.... whoa. Too much.

Dawn of the Dead (2004) - I'm not the biggest fan of the original (my fave is Night) but was very pleasantly surprised when this remake came out. From the first five minutes in, I knew it was going to be a fun ride. Somehow, they manage to make you give a shit what happens to the characters, and certainly the zombies are much quicker and more malicious here. I still like my lumbering zombies, but this is a SCARY movie. A great chapter in zombie history, in my opinion.

The Thing (1982) - Critically panned but beloved by the horror community at large, The Thing has to be on most horror fans' lists of best remakes. To me, it is the best of the bunch. What John Carpenter did to reinvent the 1951 sci-fi standard is astounding. Obviously no one can deny the special effects here are as fantastic as they are gruesome. I find it so hard to believe the film tanked when it came out. Critics hated it? What the hell were they watching?

Let Me In (2010) - There was no reason to remake the Swedish 2008 version of this movie (Let the Right One In) but just having seen it, I can say the director has done a fine job emulating the original to bring it to American audiences. What I love is the subtle terror in quiet moments, which is what the original had going for it as well. Beautifully acted, in particular by Chloe Moretz as the 12 year-old vampire, and masterfully produced, all I can say is: they got it right.

Thanks so much Christine. I was skeptical about Let Me In, but after hearing you give it the thumbs up, I may just have to see it after all. That was a great, and wonderfully long list, but you needn’t worry about it being too long. You see there are a group of folks that I’m going to call “the Overachievers“, and they took long to such new heights that I’m going to have to spin them off into their own post. So for the next four days look for one of these crazy zealots’ lists in the afternoon, and then come back in the evening as Halloween draws ever nearer. That means that we are down to the all important Top 5. Some of them you may be expecting, but I think I still have a couple of surprises up my sleeve. So stay tuned for the dramatic, once in a lifetime conclusion of The Halloween Top 13: The Remake!


  1. Thanks for letting me participate - I can't believe someone has a longer list than me. I can't wait to read it.

    And for the record, Cape Fear is a stellar remake - De Niro is a frightening bastard, isn't he?

  2. OH! And thanks for calling me both awesome AND badass. Now how much do I owe you?

  3. Christine IS badass! And I agree with all of her picks, though I'm still on the fence about Let Me In (need to see it again).

    And as Mr. Bugg already knows from my long-winded list, I DEFINITELY agree with every word regarding Cape Fear.

  4. Superb review. I can watch either Cape Fear over and over and never tire of either my opinion, a mark of a great movie.


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