1991: I Had Never Seen CAPE FEAR - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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1991: I Had Never Seen CAPE FEAR

Alexander Wallace thinks twice before renting a house boat this Summer.
Just …. Good GOD.

This film.

This damned film.

And I had previously thought that Threads (which, I will note, is about literal nuclear goddamn WAR) was the scariest movie I have ever watched.


I need a fucking bath.

In the five previous films directed by Martin Scorcese that I’ve watched, I knew that he had a distinct tendency towards making films about men with anger issues (I’d imagine that that sort of personality in men is rewarded by institutions like the mafia). I didn’t know he had made a film about such things that is so visceral about it.
So I knew Robert de Niro played gangsters a lot. I knew he could be weird and eccentric like he was in Stardust. I knew he has starred in a lot of unfunny grandpa comedies. I knew he was an immensely loathsome talk show host in Joker.

But LORD ALMIGHTY, I had no idea he could be this scary. De Niro’s performance as Max Cady made my stomach absolutely churn. He is the number one reason why Cape Fear is scarier than any horror movie I have ever watched (eat your heart out, Cabin in the Woods!), and that is because he is so believable. There is not an inkling of the supernatural in this film. Max Cady is the sort of man that makes you tell your sisters and your daughters not to ever go walking alone and to carry pepper spray. He is erudite and well-read and utterly sophisticated, which means that he subverts societal disdain for the ‘uncultured’ and forces us to confront the fact that so many people that we find ‘respectable’ are in fact deeply cruel to the point of the unspeakable.

But it’s not just that about Max Cady. It’s that he knows how people work. He knows how people think. He knows how families work, and how to break them utterly for nothing more than vengeance. He knows that the three people in Sam Bowden’s family are less than entirely happy, and he knows exactly where the faults are to drive a bloody serrated knife in just the right way to cause complete and utter agony. We all fear the possibility of somebody who knows how to set our loved ones against us.
And Max Cady is just so goddamned persistent. If people could take his drive to harass a lawyer, a sketch artist, and a high school girl, and devote it to doing good things, our world would be a much better place. But no, we get the likes of Max Cady in high office and in places of influence all around us. His anger goes far beyond rationality, and seeing how unreasonable people can be, especially people who so utterly deserve to be locked in jail for all eternity, is something that can make anyone’s skin crawl.

But Max Cady is only one part of what makes Cape Fear so unnerving. The other big part is how well it understands familial alienation. The three members of the Bowden family have all just assumed that they understand each other, becoming complacent as they have changed with the years. It also understands how forceful parenting creates children that will look anywhere for validation; if your father chokes you when he interrogates you about being sexually harassed, it becomes understandable why you’d see comfort in a strange older man in the first place.
And the music. Those accursed strings. Bernard Herrmann’s original 1962 score and reworked masterfully by Elmer Bernstein highlight the tension of every scene. You feel almost as if somebody is going to break into your own home in that very minute.

Cape Fear is a great film. A superb film. But it’s a hard film to watch. It is so disturbing and upsetting because all of this is real. There are people like Max Cady everywhere, no matter what our creature comforts may delude us into believing.

Mother of Mercy!

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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