Cape Fear is notable for many different reasons. It was Martin Scorsese’s first remake. It is one of Scorsese’s most financially successful films, which arguably paved the way for him to make higher budget movies such as Casino and The Aviator. This movie received nominations for two Academy Awards® – Best Actor (Robert De Niro as Max Cady) and Best Supporting Actress (Juliette Lewis as Danielle Bowden). But it also has a sizeable and surprising afterlife as the object of parody.
Some of the more notable parodies of Cape Fear came out in the 1990s, shortly after its release. In 1993—two years after the movie’s release—The Simpsons devoted an entire episode to parodying Cape Fear. In a 1998 episode of Seinfeld called “The Bookstore,” Jerry has a nightmare that his Uncle Leo will become a Cady-like figure if he goes to prison. Even a relatively young comic like John Mulaney made a joking reference to it during a performance of the Broadway Show Oh, Hello that he co-created with Nick Kroll.
At first glance, Cape Fear doesn’t seem to be a comedy gold mine. The tone is thrilling, with some scenes of family drama thrown in for greater complexity. Most of the scenes are either frightening, creepy, or sad as the film’s main family faces numerous disappointments. Cape Fear works very well as a thriller, but it does not even register as the blackest of comedies.
What ultimately makes Cape Fear such fertile material for comedy writers is its sincerity in the face of ridiculousness. For example, in one scene, Cady stalks the Bowden family by hiding underneath their car and holding onto it while they drive. In Cape Fear, this moment is played for thrills as Elmer Bernstein’s reworking of Bernard Hermann’s score blares. In the nightmarish world of this film, this sequence does an excellent job of showing the obsessive lengths to which Cady will go to get his revenge.
But at the same time, that image is so over the top that it is kind of funny. The film’s sincerity prevents it from being a gag, leaving comedy writers the room to exploit that sight for humor. The Simpsons brilliantly parodies that scene, and the excellent animated sitcom Rick and Morty has a reference to it in the last episode of its first season.
Nothing is a more ripe target for irony and subversion than something that is resolutely straight faced like Cape Fear. The archetypal nature of its characters allows comedy writers to substitute them with characters that have similar traits in order to make jokes. This idea of constantly parodying and reworking material is celebrated by Anne Washburn in Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. Washburn champions the different meanings that her various characters create as they try to remember “Cape Feare,” the episode of The Simpsons that was itself a parody of Cape Fear, which is a remake of a 1962 film starring Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, which is an adaptation of the 1957 James A. MacDonald novel The Executioners.
In our reboots-obsessed world, there will always be reworkings and parodies of older artistic works. Let’s hope that artists continue to use such fertile material as Cape Fear.
Jesse Pasternack is a junior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed two short films.