MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Ian McKellen (Kurt Dussander), Brad Renfro (Todd Bowden), Bruce Davison (Richard Bowden), Elias Koteas (Archie), Joe Morton (Dan Richler), Jan Tríska (Isaac Weiskopf), Michael Byrne (Ben Kramer), Heather McComb (Becky Trask), Ann Dowd (Monica Bowden), Joshua Jackson (Joey), David Schwimmer (Edward French)
Robert Bloch, the author of the novel "Psycho," has perhaps best explained the world in which Stephen King's novels take place: "horror feasts upon the humdrum, and commonplace circumstances nourish perverse perils." Bloch understands this because it is the way in which his novels work as well--horror made all the more horrifying because it takes place in imminently recognizable locales. Monsters are scary in castles in Translyvania, but they're much scarier when they live next door.
This is the underlying dread that informs much of "Apt Pupil," a new film directed by Bryan Singer ("The Usual Suspects") from a 1982 novella by King, which was published in "Different Seasons," the same four-novella anthology from which "Stand By Me" (1986) and "The Shawshank Redemption" (1994) were taken. "Apt Pupil" tells the bizarre, yet utterly plausible story of a young teenager, (described by King in the opening line of the story as "the total All-American kid") named Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) who becomes obsessed with a former SS Nazi officer named Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen). Dussander, now an old man living in an isolated house almost hidden in overgrown shrubbery, has lived anonymously in the United States since the fifties ... until Todd recognizes him by chance one evening on a bus.
From there, the film chronicles the downward spiral that is their relationship. Perversely fascinated with the atrocities of the Holocaust, Todd blackmails Dussander into telling him gruesome war stories to feed his strange new appetite. If Dussander does not comply, Todd will simply turn him in. After all, he has proof of the old German's real identity, right down to his fingerprints. As Todd and Dussander progress in their wary friendship (or, mentorship, perhaps) based on fear and distrust, they awaken their dark sides--Todd's being found for the first time, Dussander's being more of a reawakening.
The movie hinges on Renfro and McKellen because, in most senses, this is a character study. Renfro ("Sleepers"), who looks like a young Ethan Hawke, gives an impressive performance. His clean-cut, boyish good looks are the perfect mask for the violence seething just underneath his pimple-free skin (in an earlier attempt to film this story in 1988, Rick Schroeder was cast as Todd). Likewise, English Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen fits the role of Dussander perfectly by conveying the notion that monsters may grow old and tired, but they are still monsters. At times menacing, cunning, sad, and sometimes just pathetic, McKellen traverses a range of emotions and manages to pull off the impossible--he creates sympathy for an ex-Nazi.
At its best, "Apt Pupil" works as a sort of vicious allegory about the two sides of human nature. The notion of true horror living next door has never been so applicable. In the 20th century, there has never been a monster more horrifying or destructive than Nazism, and the notion that one of that monster's many heads could be living in a house at the end of the street is too plausible to ignore. But, more than that, the film forces us to remember that there are no real monsters other than the darkest elements of the human potential. Todd shows us that the same intelligence, dedication, organization, and physical ability that can make someone a high school valedictorian and baseball star can also make him a murderer.
However, "Apt Pupil" never quite comes together as it should. The subject matter itself is probably to blame, because it is tricky business dealing dramatically with the Holocaust, a historical wound that is still very sore. The use of this material as a means for cheap horror is a highly questionable venture indeed, and if I thought that was all Singer was aiming for, I would find the film appalling.
But, I don't think this is the case. Although Singer does use some gimmicky horror tactics--hazy dream sequences, sudden pounding music, a graphic murder scene--he and screenwriter Brandon Boyce significantly cut down on many of King's excesses. In the book, both Todd and Dussander turn into serial killers, and it begins to read more like a slasher story than a serious exploration of the dark side of human nature. The film maintains an aspect of that plot line, but just enough to get the point across that everybody can be a killer and that there is an incredibly fine line between an ex-Nazi and an American teenager.
As the ending of the film suggests, Todd is just as capable of committing the atrocities Dussander committed. However, in an ironic and downbeat twist, it also suggests that he will be spared because, like Dussander did for the forty years after World War II, he will hide his darkness beneath a veneer of respectability. Unless, that is, something in his future is able to reawaken it.
©1998 James Kendrick