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[whitespace] Apt Pupil
John Baer

Face of Evil: Ian McKellen plays a Nazi war criminal hiding out in a small town in 'Apt Pupil.'

Corruption runs two ways in 'Apt Pupil'

By Richard von Busack

THE STEPHEN KING story "Apt Pupil" was collected in King's book Different Seasons, the same anthology that was the source for the films Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption. "Apt Pupil" is the most memorable story in the anthology and also the trickiest to adapt for the screen. With the wrong spin, the tale could be ruined by preachiness, sentimentality or overheatedness. Fortunately, this adaptation was handled deftly by Bryan Singer, director of The Usual Suspects.

Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), hiding under the name Denker, is a recluse in a small oceanside California town in the mid-1980s. He is approached one day by a neighbor boy named Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro). The kid recognizes Dussander/Denker as an ex-SS war criminal--and has the stolen fingerprints to prove it. What he demands from Dussander is not money or justice but stories about the old days: "Everything they're afraid to teach us in school." This hard-drinking old Nazi on the skids has a bad heart and is uninterested in ideology; the Reich he knew is so alien to the California he now knows that the memories don't plague him.

Like Lolita, Apt Pupil is a story of old Europe debauching young America--or is it the other way around? Happily, Singer doesn't pin Todd's vicious behavior on the lad's family--who are the kind of people who wear coats and ties to the dinner table. Todd is a well-bred jock, and his aggressiveness is encouraged; the only brake on his ambitions is a high school guidance counselor, Mr. French (David Schwimmer), a gentle, mustachioed, blow-dried fellow who is a victim of the triumph of Todd's will. Although always funny, McKellen is also often very moving as a character who, war crimes aside, is a ragged old man tormented by a young blackmailer looking for kicks. McKellen's dry, witty performance is backed up by Singer's cool refusal to milk the historic tragedy. The sting of the story isn't in the past horrors but in the potential for horrors in the future.

As he did for The Usual Suspects, ex-De Anza student John Ottman both composed the music and edited the film. Ottman, a bright talent in the underappreciated realm of soundtrack composition, is enjoying a happy collaboration with Singer. His classy score uses appropriate passages from Wagner--Tristan und Isolde for the romance of old Nazi and young dude--and the sharp editing keeps the viewer alert through the many interior scenes in Dussander's house.

Seeking a quick blast of sensation in a movie that's mostly screw-turning, there's an apropos-of-nothing scene of Dussander mistreating a cat. This is cheap; it was cheap too in Bertolucci's 1900 when Donald Sutherland's character showed us how rotten a fascist he was by killing cats. What makes the Nazis frightening isn't that they mistreated animals--isn't it more unsettling to consider how sweet Hitler and the gang were to their doggies? Blessedly smart and tangy, Apt Pupil is a mature horror film that stands out proudly from a pack of cheap slasher pics; McKellen's perfumy rot satisfies a longing for elegant horror unfulfilled since Vincent Price went to his reward.


Apt Pupil (R; 100 min.), directed by Bryan Singer, written by Brandon Boyce, based on a story by Stephen King, photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel and starring Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro.

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From the October 29-November 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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