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In ‘Cape Fear,’ Robert De Niro Wants to Kill Your Family

Martin Scorsese updates the 1962 thriller into a genuine horror movie about a sexual predator tormenting his former lawyer

With more and more movie streaming services popping up, it can feel impossible to keep track of what’s showing where. So to help, this October I’ll be recommending a different film every day from one such service that embodies the spooky spirit of the season. From classic Halloween movies to indie horror to campy dark comedies, this is 31 Days of a Very Chingy Halloween.

Today I’m looking at Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear, currently streaming on Starz.

As frightening as vampires, witches, snake women or demon possessed hands can be, sometimes the scariest thing isn’t supernatural, but simply the evil that men are capable of. And sometimes, that evil man is Robert De Niro with a Southern accent.

Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) is a lawyer living in New Essex, North Carolina with his wife Leigh (Jessica Lange), and his teenage daughter Danielle (a young Juliette Lewis). When his former client Max Cady (De Niro) is released from his lengthy stay in prison, he moves to the same town as the Bowden family. Cady did 14 years for the rape and battery of a 16-year-old girl, and though he did commit the crime, he’s aggrieved that Sam intentionally failed him as a lawyer. So, he makes it his singular goal to terrorize Sam and his family in the most extreme of ways. 

Martin Scorsese adapted Cape Fear from a 1962 film of the same name starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum as Bowden and Cady, respectively (both the original stars are featured here in smaller cameo roles). The original film was a tremendous thriller, with Mitchum delivering a cool menace as one of the first depictions of a sexual predator of the era. What’s most terrifying about Cady in all his incarnations is his complete lack of empathy, his abundance of resources and time and his deep knowledge of the law. Throughout the film, he manipulates its loopholes as a means to torment the Bowdens in ways that are, for the most part, completely legal. 

While Scorsese’s remake keeps the Hitchcockian style that director J. Lee Thompson used in the original (down to the films sharing the same Bernard Hermann score), his version is modernized in ways that only serve the story better. For one, the Bowdens are far from a happy, all-American family, as they’ve become rather dysfunctional in Scorcese’s remake. Nolte’s Sam is a douchebag who cheats on his wife, and the film feels like it’s engaging rape culture and sexism in the legal system in a way the original couldn’t by acknowledging how a history of promiscuity can legally negate any sexual assault charges a woman places against a man. 

Just a year after he was affable mobster Jimmy Conway in Goodfellas, De Niro transformed himself for the role of Cady, growing out his hair, gaining intense muscle mass, having (fake) prison tattoos applied each day and even going as far as paying a dentist $5,000 to ruin his teeth. This makes his Cape Fear turn his most vile, horrifying and devilishly charming. Cady is equally seductive and beastly, pulling in women with his good looks and charms before he brutalizes them. In one scene, he seduces the 15-year-old Danielle in an empty auditorium by trying to make her feel special. In another, he’s biting off part of a girl’s face. De Niro takes Mitchum’s menace and transforms it into pure terror, culminating in the film’s horrifying back half with Cady having the whole family at his mercy on their houseboat amidst a storm. 

It’s just a shame De Niro looks so good when he’s being so bad.

To see a list of each of the previous entries, check out the A Very Chingy Halloween list on Letterboxd.