November 25, 1991 12:00 PM

Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte

You have two options here: Hire a baby-sitter and pay good money to go see this movie or stay home and puncture a spurting vein with the family screwdriver. The effect will be much the same either way, and with the screwdriver you’ll have saved yourself a trip. Since this remake of the 1962 thriller is directed by Martin Scorsese, an authentically original filmmaker, let’s give him his due. In such marvelously impressionistic films as Raging Ball (1980) and this year’s GoodFellas, Scorsese has shown an idiosyncratic talent for documenting the grit and gristle of lower-class American life. The problem with Cape Fear is his determination to laminate the blood-spattered pathology of Taxi Driver onto the middle class.

Nolte plays a Carolina attorney who, as a public defender 14 years before, deliberately deep-sixed evidence in a rape-battery case that might have gotten De Niro (Scorsese’s psychopath-in-residence) off scot-free. (In J. Lee Thompson’s original, Gregory Peck plays a witness whose testimony sends Robert Mitchum to jail; both have cameos here, to no avail.)

As Max Cady, a con with 14 years of hard time and legal study under his studded bell. De Niro sets out to wreak his revenge on Nolte, his wife (Jessica Lange) and teenage daughter (Juliette Lewis, whose performance as a troubled youngster promises better things in the future). There are ghastly echoes of The Silence of the Lambs in De Niro’s unholy quest (in the original. Mitchum didn’t have to bite a chunk out of anyone’s face to convey a sense of terror). Bill whereas Lambs is a riveting thriller that also limns a sharp portrait of a serial killer. Cape Fear is simply a disintegrating exercise in gratuitous violence in which Scorsese paints himself into a dark corner, then covers his mistakes with buckets of blood. (R)

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