It isn't often that I have equal admiration for two versions of a movie. But so it is with the two iterations of the thriller Cape Fear (forgetting the lameness of the Friday the 13th-ish ending to Scorsese's version, of course). Briefly, Cape Fear tells the story of ex-con Max Cady's stalking/terrorizing of the family of one attorney Sam Bowden, the man responsible for Cady's eight year stint in the pen. In the original, Bowden (Gregory Peck) was a key witness at Cady's (Robert Mitchum) trial; in the remake, Bowden (Nick Nolte), as Cady's (Robert De Niro) public defender, purposefully kept crucial evidence hidden from the court, ensuring Cady would serve a maximum sentence. Whereas the original film plays up the outside-force-disrupts-the-tranquility-of-a-harmonious-family theme, in Scorsese's version, Cady drives a wedge further into a dysfunctional family, magnifying already present rifts and tensions.
Although I could continue expounding on the differences between the films themselves and their places within their respective eras, I will instead examine the exploitation of these pictures, that is the means used to advertise them. The trailer and poster for each version act as perfect time capsules for the obsessions, stylistic and otherwise, of each period. Each trailer is typical of its era's thrillers.
Cape Fear (1962)
dir. J. Lee Thompson
The trailer: Action! Action! Action! The trailer for the original Cape Fear doesn't fuck around. Straightaway, Peck and Mitchum are brawlin'. Before the trailer's twenty second mark, Mitchum brings down a club, the picture freezes, and white splatter paints the screen—the title, Cape Fear, jumping out. Cut to: Peck, gun in hand, searching for Mitchum. The word "Suspense" bursts forth. The narrator: "Feel suspense, suspense that grips your heart in a vise." Star swipe: Mitchum looms over a helpless woman in bed. The word "Fear" roars out. Narrator: "Feel fear, numbing, paralyzing fear." Cut to Peck again. The title, Cape Fear, again. Introduction to the actors. The narrator continues selling Cape Fear's "terrifying war of nerves." At about the halfway mark, Mitchum and Peck engage in a war of words, Mitchum threatening Peck's family. Cut to more scenes of suspense: Mitchum terrorizes Peck's family members; Mitchum and Peck brawl again. More words burst onto the screen: "The Ultimate in Shock!", "The Ultimate in Suspense!". Mitchum attempts to drown Peck. Cut to mother and daughter. Mother turns off lamp. The title again: Cape Fear.
The original Cape Fear was of a time that respected genre boundaries. When you made a horror movie, you made a horror movie; when you made a Western, you made a Western; and when you made a thriller, you damn well made a thriller. Audiences went to these pictures wanting what they expected and getting what they wanted. Smartly, Cape Fear's trailer plays up the thriller elements to the nth degree. Like a carnival barker, the narrator (and the words splashing across the screen) announce sights and sounds to chill your soul. For the faint of heart there is no welcome.
Although Cape Fear's plot is vaguely alluded to, the exact reason for Mitchum's terrorizing intentions are never mentioned. And although the characters in the film are hardly one-dimensional, the trailer does nothing to humanize them. They are all players in a thriller game. We just know that Cady has plans to fuck things up for the Bowden family. Yes, the plot is central to this movie (and to thrillers as a whole), but the advertisers smartly knew that folks come to these movies for the roller-coaster experience. Reasons for shit in the movie matter not. We want thrills and we want them now. Show us enough thrills in the trailer and we'll pony up some cash.
Cape Fear (1991)
dir. Martin Scorsese
The trailer: Tranquil river. Fluid camera moves. Happy times. Ain't life grand for the Bowden family. They just moved to the beautiful small town of New Essex. "This town is so very nice and everything is just...so very, very nice." Things couldn't be better. But wait, it looks like the Bowden's have a visitor. Who could it be? Answer: Danger! Danger! Danger! Quick cuts to plot-explaining snippets of dialogue. Nolte used to be De Niro's lawyer. Nolte is being followed by De Niro. De Niro smokes a cigar and laughs obnoxiously in a movie theater. De Niro is threatening Nolte and his family in a clever way. The law can't touch him. The family dog goes missing. De Niro stalks the young daughter. Tension within family. Nolte grabs a gun. Quick cuts between family tension, action scenes, storms at sea and De Niro's creepy attempts to seduce the daughter. Loud, sharp music bursts between cuts. Back to tranquil river and fluid camera. The title: Cape Fear.
Where the original trailer has the unrelenting, full-force intensity of a Slayer song, the remake trailer plays it Pixies style—quiet, loud, quiet. Indeed, the trailer for Scorsese's version is all about the tranquility-fucked-up-by-fuckedupedness aspects of the film. Given the fact that, as opposed to the original, the Bowdens of Scorsese's Cape Fear are a dysfunctional bunch whose weaknesses as a cohesive unit are exploited by Cady's machinations, it's interesting that the film's advertisers felt the need to play up the destruction of a happy family-life theme. In some ways, this trailer would have been better suited to the original film. Of course, in the era this sequel was made, the tranquility-fucked-up-by-danger motif had become the norm for thriller trailers. Hey, audience, you thought we were gonna zig but we zagged.
In many ways, this trailer has the veneer of sophistication. The advertisers for this picture knew that its audience felt itself more learned, movie-knowledge-wise, than its predecessors thirty years prior. Plenty of movie history happened between these two points and audiences fancied themselves smarter about genres. You had to cover a lot of tonal ground in your trailer to show that this film would be complex. Yet, in many ways, this trailer traffics in many of the same carnival barker-esque, shock and entice tactics employed for the previous trailer. No, it doesn't do anything as blatant as splash the words "fear" and "suspense" across the screen, but its use of shock music cues and edits is every bit as pandering.
This isn't to say that I don't enjoy either of these trailers. Far from it. As you may have guessed by now, I'm a bit of a trailer fanatic. Mostly, I think I love trailers because they're great time capsules, sometimes even more so than the films they advertise. [The constant repetition of the title in the original trailer, for instance, can partially be attributed to the fact that the studios released far more movies in its era, so the trailers had to work overtime to burrow the movie title into the viewers' brains.] Nothing like examining the means ad-folks use to get other folks to buy stuff, to get an understanding for a time period.
[What the hell, here's the Ben Stiller Show parody "Cape Munster":]