Real evil vs. reel evil

Director Bryan Singer gets caught in Stephen King Land.

Apt Pupil begins with promise, but ends with Stephen King. By forcing what should be a psychological drama to follow the rules of Hollywood horror, director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) has made a mess of a movie and trivialized the Holocaust.

Apt Pupil

directed by Bryan Singer

starring Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro

now playing at Meridian 16, Metro, others

High schooler Todd Bowden is team captain, campus Don Juan, and class valedictorian. (His instinctive, unthinking ambition is perfectly captured by newcomer Brad Renfro.) As a result of his characteristic overachievement on a recent history assignment about the Holocaust, he recognizes an elderly gentleman on the bus as escaped Nazi war criminal Kurt Dussander (played with smoldering gentility by Ian McKellen). Todd shows up at the old man's house to make a deal: Dussander will reveal "all the things they're afraid to tell us in school," and Todd will keep the fugitive's whereabouts a secret from the Israeli government. Todd rides his bike over to the old Nazi's house every day after school and listens to unspeakable tales. He begins to dream fitfully of mass executions and gas chambers, and awakes each morning in a sweat. We watch his grades slip, his nightmares migrate into waking daydream, and we wonder: What's his deal?

And for that matter, what's Dussander's? Todd asks the old man, "What did it feel like?" and it's not clear whether Dussander's face bears a twisted grin or an anguished grimace. When Todd forces him to don a mail-order novelty SS costume, Dussander reluctantly acquiesces to be led through a few marching formations. But the uniform soon quickens him to a goose-stepping frenzy. He doesn't hear Todd's alarmed orders to stop. When he finally wheels—arm thrust forward at zooming camera—and utters an atavistic "Heil!" at the gulping boy, the effect is powerful and frightening. You can hear the entire audience thinking the same thought—oh shit! Sadly, this is the last time the movie surprises us.

With soundtrack, lighting, and zoom lens set to Full Ominous, Dussander, still huffing from his goose step down memory lane, utters the first purely redundant piece of dialogue: "Boy, be careful, you play with fire." The audience groans a second, sadder "oh shit." Here, we realize, is where subtlety ends. Soon we're watching Dussander attempt to stuff a live cat into his (gas) oven—as if being a genocidal war criminal isn't enough to establish the character's sicko credentials. Todd's troubled behavior likewise turns gratuitous. He mutters to himself. He stares sulkily. He has sexual dysfunction. And when his best friend informs him that he's been acting "like a dick," he stalks off and pummels a lame pigeon to death with a basketball. That's psycho dick to you, mister.

Poor anger management of this sort might be confusing to Todd's friend, but to the audience it can only mean one thing—Stephen King. The screenplay is adapted, we're told, from a King "novella" (what's next, an Icelandic song cycle by Danielle Steele?). Although the strong cast does its best to bury that unpleasant parentage, it soon self-exhumes, pallid and dripping dirt.

Soon we find ourselves firmly in King territory—that is, with a body in the basement. In this case, the body belongs to a homeless man Dussander has just stabbed in the back with a wine-bottle opener. Dussander traps Todd in the cellar just as the guy regains consciousness and lurches up from his pool of blood. Todd quickly discovers the advantages of garden spades as murder weapons—they're often lying around basements where the great majority of attacks by not-quite-dead knifing victims occur, they're easy to wield, and you can use them to bury the body when you're done. (Just try digging a shallow grave with a nail gun or a pair of knitting needles.) When Dussander directs the teen's own question—"How did it feel?"—back at him, we don't need to hear his answer to know what's happened. It's the same thing that happened to Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Jeff Goldblum in The Fly, Michael Jackson in the Thriller video. The Dark Side has registered a new convert.

Apt Pupil's creators don't classify it as a horror movie. Yet the film proclaims fealty to the genre's cardinal rule: Evil should be uncomplicated and absolute. In horror films, we don't care why spirits possess people, or why bloodthirsty aliens attack us—it's enough that they do. But a movie about a young boy inheriting the mantle of evil from an old Nazi owes us an explanation. Movies dealing with the Holocaust are beholden to at least attempt an honest inquiry into the true nature of evil. The fact that Apt Pupil starts off looking like it plans to explore the roots of real-life horror only enhances the sting of its betrayal. It retreats from its own queries to a stereotype of evil, where young boys inexplicably become killers and fascism is typified by cat baking.

 
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