Apt Pupil [1998]

Genre: Drama, Thriller
At the top of his game, Stephen King has a real gift for mining monsters--zero-at-the-bone horror--out of everyday faces and places. Adapted from a novella in the 1982 collection that also spawned Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption, Apt Pupil looks at first as if it might draw authentically enlightening terror from the soul-cancer that makes blood relations of a Southern California golden boy (Brad Renfro) and an aging Nazi war criminal (Sir Ian McKellen). Turned on by a high-school course about the Holocaust, Todd Bowden (such a bland handle for this top-of-his-class sociopath!) tracks down Kurt Dussander, a former Gestapo killer hiding in the shadows of sunny SoCal. Blackmailing the old man into sharing his firsthand stories of genocide, the teenager trips out on the virtual reality of the monster's memories. There's perverse play here on the way a kid hungry for knowledge can bring a long-retired teacher or grandparent back to life. Truly superb as James Whale in Gods and Monsters, McKellen brings subtlety to this Stephen King creepshow: his dessicated Dussander is like a mummy or vampire revivified by Todd's appetite for atrocity. Considerable talent intersects in Apt Pupil: It's director Bryan Singer's first film since The Usual Suspects, that enormously popular, rather heartless thriller-machine. The outstanding cast also includes David Schwimmer as a Jewish guidance counselor pathetically impotent in the face of Todd's talent for evil, and Bruce Davison as Todd's All-American Dad, lacking the capacity to even imagine evil. And the story itself has the potential for gazing into the heart of darkness right here in Hometown, U.S.A. But Apt Pupil just turns ugly and unclean when it trivializes its subject, equating Holocaust horrors with slamming a cat into an oven or offing a nosy vagrant (Elias Koteas). Reducing the great spiritual abyss that lies at the center of the 20th century to cheap slasher-movie thrills and chills is reprehensible. Both Todd and the writers of Apt Pupil should have heeded the old saw: When supping with the devil, best use a long spoon. --Kathleen Murphy

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