The Austin Chronicle

Apt Pupil

Rated R, 100 min. Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring Ian Mckellan, Brad Renfro, Bruce Davidson, Elias Koteas, Joe Morton, Jan Triska, Michael Byrne, Heather Mccomb, Ann Dowd, David Schwimmer.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 23, 1998

Based on the Stephen King novella of the same name, Apt Pupil is one of those rarest of films, a King adaptation that doesn't fall flat. It's not perfect, certainly, but as directed by Singer (The Usual Suspects) it's a punchy, hair-raising descent into the nature of evil and the corrupting influence of one man's power over another.

King's pulpy, straightforward meditation on the same themes runs through the original work, and though Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce have toned down many of the author's more disquieting passages (including an entirely new and entirely unnecessary ending), the tale, more or less, remains the same. Renfro plays Todd Bowden, a talented, seemingly normal Midwestern American teenager, with one exception: He harbors a bizarre obsession with Nazis and the Holocaust. When he discovers, quite by accident, that the wizened old man down the block is in reality Kurt Dussander (McKellan), former death camp commander, he uses it to blackmail Dussander into telling him “all the things they're afraid to teach us in school.” Specifically, Todd is interested in the mechanics of genocide: How did the ovens work? How many Jews could be packed into a shower? How long did it take the Zyklon-B to work? And so on. As King put it, Todd is after “all the gooshey stuff.” As their relationship progresses, the boy and Dussander form an unlikely partnership, one that awakens the latent evil in both of them. Eventually, Todd's grades begin to slip and the old man reasserts a control he hasn't had since the fall of Berlin.

Singer stays remarkably true to the spirit of King's electrifying novella, but toes the line when it comes to the true horrors: Gone are the story's homoerotic overtones, the boy's perversely sexual camp fantasies, and the entire Stephen King ending (King has gone on record as saying he believes the reworked finale is -- in a word -- “weak,” and I'd have to agree with him). In their absence, Singer piles on the stylistic flourishes, such as a scene in which Dussander makes sauerkraut of a wandering homeless man while strains of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde blare, and a horrific, hallucinatory sequence wherein Todd imagines his school locker-room shower to be something else entirely. The story's main themes, however, remain intact, and both McKellan and Renfro are spot-on in their portrayals. At times, Renfro seems a bit too All-American, until you flash back to the opening scene and its subtitle of “1984.” Leaving the film in King's original time frame wipes out any sociological clutter such as gangsta rap, high school bloodbaths, and the like, that might otherwise get in the way of the film's straightforward and wrenching emotional impact. It's not perfect King, but it is jarringly close, which these days remains pretty much all one could hope for.

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