Following a 6-year imprisonment for committing a sadistic sex crime, Max Cady arrives in a small southern town to seek revenge on the man responsible for his conviction, counselor Sam Bowden. Although Cady makes no direct threats, it is apparent that he is after Sam's wife, Peggy, and his 12-year-old daughter, Nancy. Because he has broken no law, neither Sam nor the police are able to take any legal action against him. Consequently, Sam cannot prevent Cady from poisoning the family dog, menacing Nancy when she leaves school, and whispering obscenities to Peggy over the telephone. Furthermore, Cady refuses to be bribed or bullied out of town. Desperate, Sam decides to take the law into his hands and lay a trap for Cady. After hiding his wife and daughter in a houseboat on the Cape Fear River, he leaves town. He then secretly returns, hopeful that Cady has discovered the hiding place. The ruse works, and Cady arrives on the scene late one night. Following a furious struggle in the river, Sam overpowers Cady and once more is instrumental in sending him to prison.