The Horror, The Horror

Martin Scorsese's first suspense thriller, a remake of Cape Fear, whips M up adrenaline and anxiety with pharmaceutical finesse. Did anyone doubt that it would? Though he may be a newcomer to the genre, the director of "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "GoodFellas" is no stranger to fear, loathing and psychological dread. The terror that was the undercurrent in his earlier films is now the main attraction, and no small part of the gaudy, nasty fun of "Cape Fear" is watching Scorsese apply his virtuosity to a form that some may consider beneath him. This is a flagrantly self-conscious suspense movie in which you find yourself admiring each edgy, expressionistic angle, every vertiginous camera move, each blatant cinematic homage while simultaneously gripping your seat in horror.

Scorsese and screenwriter Wesley Strick follow closely the outlines of J. Lee Thompson's 1962 original: a vengeance-minded ex-con named Max Cady (Robert De Niro), sprung from 14 years in jail for sexual assault, returns to a sunny North Carolina town to terrorize a lawyer, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte), and his family. But where the original Robert Mitchum/Gregory Peck thriller was a black-and-white showdown of pure low-rent evil versus impeccable middle-class virtue, Scorsese has typically muddied the moral waters by giving Sam Bowden's family its own share of guilty secrets. Peck's almost insufferably upright Bowden had been a witness who testified against Cady; Nolte's Bowden was his lawyer, who suppressed evidence that might have gotten his guilty client graphic-designer wife (Jessica Lange) now seethes with resentment at his infidelities. And their 15-year-old daughter Danny--spectacularly well played by Juliette Lewis--has become a complex, angry girl/woman who is grappling with her budding sexuality.

But it is De Niro--his body covered with tattoos and the tackiest wardrobe in the New South--who dominates the film with his lip-smacking, blackly comic and terrifying portrayal of psychopathic self-righteousness. De Niro's character is a Nietzschean superman disguised as a cigar-smoking Pentecostal sleazebucket. He has the ability to transform himself, like Satan himself, into the shape of his enemy's worst fear or desire. He can outsmart Sam at his own lawyerly games and, in the movie's best, most disturbing (and quietest) scene, seduce Danny by insinuating himself into her divided, rebellious heart. Cady's no longer a realistic figure but a white-trash Wrath of God.

Still, though Scorsese adds nifty layers of complexity to the genre, he's not out to transcend it, and he's not above resorting to the commonest horror-movie ploys. There's a danger in expecting too much from "Cape Fear." It gives you a pumped-up, thrill-happy ride (assuming you have a stomach for violent pulp) but it doesn't linger in the mind as Scorsese's richest movies do. It's a swell B movie dressed in haute cinematic couture.