By 1991, Martin Scorsese was the most distinctive and talented film-maker working at the peak of his powers but had still never quite had the mega-hit which would give him the Hollywood clout to go along with his abilities.
As a payback to Universal for supporting his tricky Last Temptation of Christ project, Scorsese unashamedly applied himself to a big-scale quickie thriller, built on the skeleton of the well-remembered 1962 suspense thriller. Scorsese enters into the spirit of the thing, reusing Bernard Herrmann's score to melodramatic effect, calling upon Saul Bass for a suitably ominous credit sequence, and respectfully casting the stars of the earlier film (Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam) in telling cameos.
Nolte and DeNiro are superb as the antagonists, a compromised lawyer and a self‑educated white trash supervillain, and Juliette Lewis and Jessica Lange are outstanding as Nolte's imperilled family.
The first hour presents a quietly scary logic as Max, barely breaking the law, reduces Sam's life to shreds. However Scorsese abandons subtlety with an all‑stops‑out gothic finale in a swamp that finally answers the question of what a Friday The 13th movie would look like starring and directed by Academy Award nominees.
The suspense rises in a crescendo as the demented Cady - certainly the most loathsome character DeNiro has ever played - invades the Bowden houseboat during a storm, finally transformed into a Freddy-faced monster as he is burned and battered but keeps crawling out of the waters to attack again, and finally dragged under while speaking in tongues.
Despite provocative debate on legal and family ethics, it's just a horror picture, but it is at least a damn good horror picture.