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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 22.39%
Average: 18.66%
Pretty Bad: 21.64%
Total Crap: 5.22%

13 reviews, 56 user ratings

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Apt Pupil
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Excellent, challenging study of evil."
5 stars

Stephen King's 'Different Seasons,' his 1982 collection of novellas, has yielded three fine movies: 'Stand by Me,' 'The Shawshank Redemption,' and now 'Apt Pupil.' (The fourth story, "The Breathing Method," remains unfilmed -- and probably unfilmable.)

Of the three, Apt Pupil is easily the riskiest and toughest, both as a story in itself and as a challenge for filmmakers. At least one set of adapters took a whack at it, and were only eleven days away from a wrap before the plug was pulled and the film shelved. Plagued by delays, legal hassles, and the problems of the material itself, this film has had the longest, most difficult pregnancy in recent memory.

Fortunately, Apt Pupil has two skillful sets of hands to deliver it: director Bryan Singer (who made the coolly intricate puzzle The Usual Suspects) and first-time screenwriter Brandon Boyce, a Singer associate who acted in Singer's 1992 debut Public Access. It also has a master to cut the cord from King's book and slap it into its own chilling life: Ian McKellen as Kurt Dussander, the Blood Fiend of Patin, a Nazi war criminal hiding in the peaceful, leafy suburbs. Apt Pupil would be well-crafted without McKellen; with him, it's haunting -- a true horror movie.

Dussander, posing as "Arthur Denker," is visited one day by Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), a straight-A student with an unnatural interest in the Holocaust. He recognizes Dussander from old photographs, and he strikes a deal with the old man: Todd will keep quiet if Dussander will regale Todd with stories of what really happened in the death camps -- all the gory details they leave out in school. At first disgusted, Dussander soon warms to his storyteller role, reliving (in more ways than one) his unspeakable past. And we watch as his influence rubs off on Todd.

Stephen King's novella is perhaps unique among his work in that it's genuinely evil. I don't mean that as a criticism but as a sort of compliment: King went further than he'd ever gone (and has ever gone since), climbing into the heads of his old and young monsters, and he took us with him, at length -- an ugly and undeniably compelling experience that makes us question ourselves: If we're ready to condemn Todd for hanging on Dussander's every word, what does that make us for reading it? The novella is bizarre and mechanistic and compulsively readable -- maybe the closest King has come to his version of art.

Unfortunately, toward the end of his story, King took a sharp left turn into pulp. Singer and Boyce have wisely altered the ending, making it much more subtle, and have also muted some of the novella's gorier bits. What remains is still challenging. We see that Dussander is a monster and that Todd is becoming one, yet the basic conventions of narrative force us into complicity with them -- force us to hope they don't get caught. When the two put one over on Todd's dweeby guidance counselor (David Schwimmer, whose milquetoast persona works for the first time in a movie), we're meant to enjoy their deception -- and we do.

Brad Renfro is decent as Todd, though he differs sharply from King's Todd (who started out as a cheerful Boy Scout type). We don't perceive much of a change in his personality -- he's unsmiling and withdrawn right from the start. Somebody like the amiable, funny Seth Green might have truly frightened us by changing from a nice kid into a beast. Still, Renfro holds his own up there with Ian McKellen, who gives one of the year's great performances. McKellen plays Dussander as a withered husk who comes to life when reminded of the butcher he once was. He makes Dussander human, and therefore all the more monstrous.

'Apt Pupil' can't go as far or as deep as King did; fiction writers have pages and pages to depict their characters' inner workings, but a movie, at a certain point, has to stop and hope it has an actor strong enough to fill in the blanks. This movie does.

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originally posted: 12/30/06 13:53:55
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell loner becomes a nazi psycho killer skip it 1 stars
8/01/07 Don´t believe the movie-haters on this list - go check it out! TreeTiger 5 stars
7/16/07 Total Crap Average 3 stars
2/23/07 David Pollastrini I saw it but have no memory of it so it must have sucked 1 stars
10/10/06 Brian Excellent, manipulative sparring, another piece of magic from Stephen King 4 stars
7/13/06 Agent Sands I love seeing two horrible people being cleverly horrible to each other. 5 stars
4/21/06 pk i thougt it was too scary for a stephen king novella and movie 3 stars
5/27/05 Lord Haw Haw One too many coincidences. Collapses under its own weight. 2 stars
3/06/05 Danny Excellent film. 5 stars
6/20/04 El Capo Both sucks and blows 2 stars
3/23/04 Trannon Goble Spectacular 5 stars
12/22/03 Snickerdoodle Really moody and creepy, I'd like to see it again 4 stars
6/23/03 Jack Sommersby Unfocused and weakly acted by Renfro. 2 stars
5/12/03 Jack Bourbon The best one-man marching sequence in the history of cinema. 4 stars
5/11/03 Charles Tatum Understood all of three words Ian spoke 2 stars
11/25/02 Kyle Slow mover, but an engaging film. 4 stars
9/16/02 John Wright brillian film . hits the spot 5 stars
4/21/02 R.W. Welch Plot line not credible, but that good old Steven King weirdness helps a lot. 4 stars
1/21/02 Andrew Carden It's Good To Make Fun Of...Could One Day Be A Victim Of MST2K. 3 stars
6/04/01 Basil They should have choosen the books ending. 2 stars
11/29/00 The Evil Penguin very creepy 4 stars
11/08/00 Romana twisted, creepy yet strangely engaging 4 stars
4/10/00 Yankee surreal, this is scary. The shower and uniform sequences were creepy. simply excellent 4 stars
12/17/99 Fork Structure, form, purpose? A Jedi needs not these plot elements. 2 stars
9/16/99 strike unjustly overshadowed by American History X. Do not let them fool you! This is better. 4 stars
9/08/99 Joe Goebbels Yes, all Nazis are cruel to animals, and skilled forgers to boot. Lots of laughs. 1 stars
8/26/99 Liza Poor Sir Ian McKellan doing his best Kenneth Mars from "The Producers" imitation Nazi accen 1 stars
7/12/99 ken heine the basement scene was cool. 2 stars
7/04/99 J-Dogg This sucky shit just drags on and on; repellent characters; horrible, horrible, HORRIBLE. 1 stars
6/28/99 Stevie B. Pretty engaging, yet some pretty serious overacting going on here. Gets pretty eerie on you 3 stars
6/26/99 David There's some good stuff in here, but it's strangely soulless. You just don't care. 3 stars
6/03/99 Tristynn It was okay.. A bit draggy in parts.. the best they could do with a SK novel i guess... 3 stars
3/14/99 Ah Dooey Better than the rest of King's movies. 5 stars
12/29/98 The Dude mother fucking great. You'll never guess the ending 5 stars
12/28/98 Johny Slow and uninteresting. Major let down 2 stars
12/11/98 Mike McFarland maybe some of you read a different story..this was VERY tame compared to the King story 3 stars
12/10/98 Bryan Interesting movie showing the transformation from ignorance to hate. 3 stars
12/09/98 ee hogan' s heroes meets the dark half 3 stars
12/05/98 Shadow Raider Excellent flick, better than that Urban Legend shit. Get your ass to this movie! 5 stars
12/03/98 Kirgo Well crafted although very forced at times. 4 stars
11/25/98 Bad Kosh Hehehehe... 5 stars
11/24/98 Greensweater *yawn* 2 stars
11/20/98 Emma the worst movie i've seen since "the land before Time" 1 stars
11/17/98 StenoHead Probably the best possible movie about Stephen King's worst story ever. 3 stars
10/31/98 Specter Startling, not scary. 4 stars
10/28/98 Miss Stress you cannot walk away and no be disturbed, if you did you weren't paying attention. 5 stars
10/26/98 Pariah A major letdown...I wasn't frightened, I wasn't disturbed. I was, however, mildly bored. 3 stars
10/26/98 Chris I enjoyed it, I felt that it was pretty intense. 4 stars
10/25/98 Negative Creep Two good Performances in a picture that goes nowhere. 3 stars
10/19/98 Aint-It-Cool Unfortunately, the magic just wasn't on the page. A March movie. 3 stars
10/17/98 Mr Showbiz director Bryan Singer falls flat with his dull adaptation 2 stars
10/13/98 {{{OZ}}} Moronb, if you haven't seen it, don't rate it. 5 stars
10/13/98 joseph renfro no no 2 stars
10/13/98 jym brad renfro=bad 1 stars
9/29/98 brian Excellent! Oscar contender material! 5 stars
8/29/98 Mister Whoopee Sensational. Scary as hell, from the guy who directed Usual Suspects. Reeaaaaally good. 5 stars
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  23-Oct-1998 (R)


  15-Apr-1999 (MA)

Directed by
  Bryan Singer

Written by
  Brandon Boyce

  Ian McKellen
  Brad Renfro
  Joe Morton
  David Schwimmer
  Bruce Davison
  Elias Koteas

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