This 1998 Stephen King adaptation is a highly underrated film that
deserves a reconsideration. Despite a less than satisfying fade-out it's
compelling and genuinely chilling, and certainly one of the finest films
ever directed by Bryan Singer.
The novella "Apt Pupil" was first published in Stephen
King's 1982 anthology DIFFERENT SEASONS (which also provided the source
material for STAND BY ME and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION). It told the
chilling story of a preteen boy who becomes unhealthily obsessed with an
aging Nazi war criminal living in his neighborhood.
APT PUPIL was initially adapted for film in the late
1980s with Nicole Williamson and Rick Schroeder headlining, but the
production ran out of money and was shut down after ten weeks. This
second filming of the material was by director Bryan Singer, following
his mega-successful 1995 indie THE USUAL SUSPECTS.
Singerís APT PUPIL attracted some brief controversy
prior to its 1998 release because of a lawsuit filed by underage extras,
who (falsely) alleged that Singer had mistreated them during a group
shower sequence, and wasn't much of a success critically or financially.
It is, however, far superior to Singer's better-known (and more
conventional) Nazi-themed drama VALKYRIE from 2008.
Todd is an all-American boy living in a small town
circa 1985. He comes to realize that Kurt Dussander, an escaped Nazi, is
residing in the neighborhood under an assumed identity, and one day Todd
plucks up the courage to knock on the old man's door. Driven by an
unhealthy fascination with Dussander's past, Todd blackmails him into
revealing some of the more unpleasant details of his tenure as a Nazi
during WWII. Dussanderís revelations are so disturbing that Todd is
unable to sleep at night, and his grades slip. Dussander offers to
personally see that Todd's schoolwork improves, and so draws the boy
into a danse macabre.
In the process Todd finds himself becoming increasingly
Nazi-like, just as Dussander slips back into his former role of
cold-blooded murderer. He lures a bum into his basement and kills
him--or thinks he does. It's actually Todd who administers the killing
blow, thus unwittingly bonding himself with Dussander forevermore.
Yet on the night of the killing Dussander has a heart
attack and winds up hospitalized. There a Jewish holocaust survivor
recognizes Dussander and alerts the authorities. This effectively ends
Dussander's reign, but his malevolent influence on Todd stretches on.
Most of Bryan Singer's movies tend to be loud and
flashy (see THE USUAL SUSPECTS and X-MEN), but APT PUPIL is powerful
mostly because it's so unnervingly quiet and restrained. There are some
extremely glitzy moments, yes (in particular the kinetic intercutting of
the climax), and some genuinely scary ones (the scene where one of
Dussander's victims recognizes him in the hospital is a stunner), but
it's the performances that occupy center stage, notably the impacting
lead turns by the late Brad Renfro as Todd and a never-better Ian
McKellan as the Nazi.
Where the film could be better is in its scripting.
Some of the narrative faults were bequeathed by Stephen King's source
novella, which failed to adequately explain the nature of Todd's
obsession with the neighborhood Nazi. The screenplay by Brandon Boyce
likewise gives us little insight into the boy's actions (the
universality-of-evil concept is insufficient). Worst of all, though, is
King's original conclusion, conveyed in possibly the
most chilling single sentence I've ever encountered, saw Todd embark on
a killing spree before being shot by police. Boyce and Singer's new
ending, while admirably uncompromising, is pared down and de-balled
considerably. No, it doesn't blunt the impact of the rest of the film,
but does close it out in unsatisfying fashion.
Director: Bryan Singer
Producers: Jane Hamsher, Don Murphy, Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Brandon Boyce
(Based on a novella by Stephen King)
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Editing: John Ottman
Cast: Ian McKellan, Brad Renfro, Elias Koteas, Bruce Davison, David
Schwimmer, Joshua Jackson, Joe Morton, Mickey Cottrell, Ann Dowd, James
Karen, Marjorie Lovett