Martin Scorsese's film needs to be rescued from the critical wilderness into which it tends to have been cast. Unlike The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, it explores the conflicts and repression which threaten to tear its nuclear family apart.
This is not an auteurist reading which sees Scorsese transcending the limits of a popular genre to deliver a radical political message. Less acclaimed directors have also used horror films to challenge conventional views of the family, and 'greater' talents than Curtis Hanson have directed movies as conservative as The Hand That Rocks The Cradle.
In Cape Fear, rapist Max Cady (Robert De Niro) wreaks revenge on his defence lawyer Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte) and his family because Bowden failed to disclose evidence which might have helped Cady's case. But Cady is not just a monster who disrupts the Bowdens' lives. The family is close to collapse anyway: Cady is successful largely because he knows the weaknesses to exploit.
The Hand That Rocks The Cradle has Claire and Michael Bartel (Annabella Sciorra and Matt McCoy) employing nanny Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay), unaware that she is really the vengeful widow of a gynaecologist who committed suicide when Claire lodged a complaint of sexual harassment against him. In class terms, the Bowdens and the Bartels are much alike. The Cape Fear family have a large house and a servant; the Bartels are younger and are busy improving their big house with the help of a mentally retarded black labourer (slave?) from a rehabilitation scheme. Unlike the Bowdens, the Bartels are blissfully happy, and remain morally upright despite some of Peyton's worst attempts to destroy them.
The Bowdens have a history of family strife. Sam and Leigh (Jessica Lange) have previously seen a counsellor about the rift caused by Sam's past affairs, and he is veering towards another extra-marital relationship at the story's outset. Discussing the ethics of firearms, Sam asks: "Would you really feel more secure with a loaded gun in the house?". Leigh replies: "We'd end up using it on each other."
The performances in Cape Fear help accentuate the family's communication problems, because the family only comes alive when arguing amongst itself. When we see them going to the cinema and eating out, Sam, Leigh and Danielle (Juliette Lewis) seem like actors unconvincingly pretending to make family-like small talk: it's only when there are rows between Sam and Leigh or Sam and Danielle that (to use a word the film keeps repeating) they connect.
Cady's appearance deepens the divisions among the Bowdens. After Cady poisons the family dog, Sam questions Leigh about it aggressively: he is seen standing up, back to the camera, in traditional detective pose, separated from the family by his job. Cady also exacerbates a moral confusion which arises from the Bowdens' domestic turmoils. When he hears of Cady's latest crime, Sam exclaims excitedly: "Cady raped another girl. " When the victim turns out to be Lori, the woman he had been seeing after work, he feels guilty and talks to her on the phone - only to provoke another argument: the family situation promotes his callousness and punishes conscience.
Sam's efforts to unite the family against Cady usually fail. He tells Leigh: "We can beat this son of a bitch, working together", but in the next shot he's seen trying to sleep on the sofa.
The Bartel family in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is disrupted from outside. Early on, the family's happiness is threatened when Claire is sexually assaulted by her gynaecologist, but the story resumes six months later when this problem has been safely overcome.
Peyton the psychopathic nanny appears after Claire decides to spend time away from her new baby, Joey -when she deviates from the 'ideal' function of a housewife. Significantly, Claire doesn't even need a nanny so she can go out to work: the narrative punishes her for just wanting to spend some time pottering around the greenhouse.
Unlike Sam Bowden, Michael Bartel is not having an affair, despite advances from Peyton. Whereas Cady uses Sam s affair as a weapon, Peyton has to engineer a plot to make Claire wrongly suspect Michael of infidelity. This plot climaxes in the film's one comic scene, when Claire berates Michael loudly for being unfaithful, only to find the house is full of her friends assembled for the party Michael had been planning surreptitiously.
Michael remains annoyingly unflappable through most of the film, only losing his temper in the party scene. When Claire apparently loses a vital report he has been working on all night in the hope of a research post, he shrugs it off; and even after Claire's accusations that he has been having an affair, he can't be tempted off the straight and narrow by De Mornay, star of the remake of ...And God Created Woman.
In Cape Fear, the family has so failed 15 year old Danielle that Cady seems attractive to her. The first time the Bowdens encounter Cady is at the cinema, where they go to see Problem Child. Danielle is a problem child herself, and Leigh says she has been going for "soul-searching walks in the woods" .
Posing as a drama teacher, Cady phones her after she has argued with her parents, and listens to her problems. He boasts that there is a "connection" between them, which doesn't exist between Danielle and her parents. Even when the family is hiding from him, Danielle reads the Henry Miller book he leaves outside the house for her. At the film's climax, she admits reading it and thinking of him.
The film implies that the alienated Danielle contains a monstrous potential herself. In its first shot, we see a huge close-up of a pair of eyes which we assume to be Cady's, but which are Danielle's; and in the last shot, these turn blood red. Danielle seems almost as dangerous to the family as Cady.
A conflict begins to develop between young daughter Emma (Madeline lima) and her parents in The Hand That Rocks The Cradle when they become suspicious of Peyton. But it is short lived: Emma becomes withdrawn when her parents get rid of the handyman Solomon (who Peyton implicates as a child molester) and is upset when they sack Peyton, but at the film's climax she is quickly converted to the parents' point of view and helps kill Peyton. The problem lies outside the family, not with the child.
If monsters in horror films often embody society's repressed urges returning to wreak havoc, it's useful to look at what the psychopaths seem to represent in Cape Fear and The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. Max Cady, however, seems to fit a Catholic interpretation of Scorsese's films rather than a Freudian one. Scorsese himself has suggested Cady is the Bowdens' punishment for their sins and the film is heavy with religious symbolism, notably in Cady's bizarre tattoos and dialogue about guilt and redemption: "you could say I'm here to save you"; "I don't hate [Bowden] , I pray for him" ; "Every man has to go through hell to reach his paradise. "
Although Cady's crimes are never less than repulsive, he is introduced as an amusing figure compared to the poorly adjusted Bowdens. When they are attempting to behave like a 'normal' family at the screening of Problem Child, we admire his obnoxiousness as he laughs loudly and blows cigar smoke: he's enjoying the film more than they are, and is laughing at its send-up of happy families. His assault on Lori later shocks us out of sympathising with him or laughing at him, and it is this sudden shift in tone which makes Cape Fear so disturbing: we enjoy his disruptive potential until it is fulfilled.
Cady and Peyton have both, to some extent, been wronged by the law. Cady went to prison for longer than he would have done had Sam Bowden disclosed the report on his young victim's prior history. But the film poses a series of dilemmas around this premise: Should Bowden have used this report and put more potential victims at risk? Or was he right to withhold it and violate his ethical duty as a defence lawyer?
In The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, Claire complaints about her gynaecologist's sexual harassment but will not repeat her allegations in court, leaving other women to come forward and testify instead. When Dr Mott commits suicide, the law deprives Peyton of a home and an income. But the film doesn't explore the moral questions these circumstances raise: after initially sympathising with Peyton, we are directed to take Claire's side.
Peyton is at the outset a career woman and infiltrates the Bartels' nuclear family in order to wreck it. The Bartels' friend Marlene tells Michael: "Never let an attractive woman occupy a position of power in your home", and the film shows her warnings to be well-founded. Eventually, the career woman and the housewife literally do battle and the nuclear family manages to expel all attempts to wreck it. Apart from Peyton, the only career woman in the film is estate agent Marlene, who is regarded as expendable by the narrative and ends up killed in a trap set for Claire.
Many viewers would be inclined to take Peyton's side against the middle-class, fake liberal, light opera-listening Bartels. Certainly, the audience can feel for her when she loses her home and has a miscarriage, and it's possible to root for her when she befriends Emma by twisting a school bully's arm and threatening him in obscene language. Peyton attacks the Bartels by playing on their middle class paranoias: that their happy family could be wrecked by an affair or by the black servant harbouring impure thoughts about the daughter. But we are constantly aware that by taking Peyton's side we are going against the grain of the text. The film ultimately brooks no sympathy for her and the audience is supposed to cheer when she is impaled on the family's picket fence (a suburban icon if ever there was one): to enjoy this scene, the viewer has to cast aside all thoughts of Peyton as a victim or a human with psychological problems.
Martin Scorsese has said (in Peter Biskind,
'Slouching Toward Hollywood', Premiere, vol. 5, No. 3, Nov. 1991,
p. 73) that he rejected an early draft of the Cape Fear screenplay
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