Directed by Martin Scorsese.
Starring Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, Juliette Lewis, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam, Joe Don Baker.
Thriller, USA, 128 mins, cert 18.


Released in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray via Fabulous Films on 13th September 2021.


It’s hard to believe that it has been 30 years since Martin Scorsese remade the 1962 classic CAPE FEAR, itself a hard-as-nails thriller but the updated version came at a time when the line between thriller and horror was beginning to blur – THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS also hit the same year – and mainstream audiences were treated to some of the biggest names of the day making some of the most terrifying movies of the era. But given how stylised Scorsese’s take on the material was, how does it hold up three decades later?


As if you need to ask! Despite being 30 years-old and having one foot deep in the past with its noir-ish stylings, CAPE FEAR feels as fresh and exciting as the day it came out. The stars were in alignment as Scorsese was in the midst of a purple patch coming off the back of the controversial THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST and the evergreen GOODFELLAS, Robert De Niro was still in full method actor mode – even spending thousands of dollars to have his teeth ground down to play Max Cady – and the supporting cast were all on top of their game, producing a contemporary thriller with the feel of classic Hollywood running through its veins.


If you are unfamiliar with it, CAPE FEAR sees Max Cady (De Niro) released from prison after serving 14 years for rape and sexual assault, and heading straight to infiltrate the life of his defence lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). It turns out that during the trial Bowden buried some key evidence that would have reduced Cady’s sentence but, given Cady’s brutal crimes, he kept quiet and hoped Cady would disappear back to the hills from where he came, never to be heard of again.


Unfortunately, during his time in prison Cady learnt to read and taught himself law, and upon discovering that Bowden hid his evidence he goes after the Bowden family to make sure that Sam discovers what it feels like to suffer loss.


What makes CAPE FEAR so captivating are the characters as every person in this film is flawed; Max Cady is a psychopath but keeps his intimidation methods within the boundaries of the law, Sam Bowden may be a respected lawyer but it is his personal morals overwriting his professional duty that has gotten him into this predicament, and although he has a big house, fancy car and lots of money his relationship with his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) is fractious at best, and his daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) feels increasingly distant from her constantly quarrelling parents. Add to that he is on the brink of an affair with a colleague and Max Cady has a lot of ammunition to fire back at him when Bowden takes matters above the law, proving to Cady that he is no better than the scum he puts away.


And scum is what Max Cady is, with Robert De Niro putting in one of his most convincing performances by transforming his physique into a muscular frame plastered with Bible quote tattoos. There is not one scene in the movie where you do not believe that Max Cady is in total control of everything that is happening and De Niro is never less than mesmerising.


As well as the strong cast giving stellar performances, Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Freddie Francis (himself a regular in genre movies, including several Hammer productions) and composer Elmer Bernstein – who utilises Bernard Herrmann’s powerful score from the original – all help to elevate CAPE FEAR from being a straightforward thriller into a stylised psychological thriller (that dreaded early ‘90s phrase) with a few horror-esque touches here and there to heighten the sense of danger, along with De Palma-style split-screens, certain shots filmed in negative tones and, in the final act, using the environment to represent the impending and inevitable confrontation. Yes, the HD transfer may show up the edges of some of the matte paintings and optical effects but for a movie that is 30 years-old it remains impressive and still has the desired effect of creating tension and dread.


As well as looking good on Blu-ray – and the image quality is extremely crisp and full of rich hues, especially when compared to a lot of movies from the time that suffered from having fairly bland colour palettes (the ‘80s was over and neon was out) – the disc also comes with a few extras, the main one being a feature-length ‘making-of’ that features interviews with the cast and crew but is, interestingly, taken from different sources at different times so you will get a snippet of Martin Scorsese talking about the movie in 1991 followed up by him approaching the same subject again in 1999. It also never hurts to get Robert De Niro talking about what drew him to the part and how he approached the role. As well as that there are also smaller behind-the-scenes featurettes, theatrical trailer, photograph montages and a double-sided poster featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys.


With minimal nods to the fashions of the time – a snippet of a Guns N’ Roses song, a Megadeth poster on Danielle’s wall and the novelty of a bedroom phone for private calls – CAPE FEAR is a timeless movie that could have been made in any decade, and given that it is still more terrifying than any slasher movie from at least five years either side of its original release means it deserves its place as a (relatively) modern classic, which is no mean feat when you consider it is already a remake of a highly regarded classic movie. Martin Scorsese may have made more beloved movies, and Robert De Niro may have played more iconic roles, but in 1991 both director and actor were on peak form and CAPE FEAR helped set the template for the decade ahead when it came to hard-hitting thrillers with a dark edge, and despite being parodied by THE SIMPSONS it still manages to set your nerves on edge 30 years later.


Chris Ward.


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