There's no question that horror meister Stephen King is at his scariest when he dispenses with the science-fiction element of his writing and concentrates on the human condition.

For instance, Misery  was much more frightening than  The Tommyknockers   or It  because the story of an obsessed fan kidnapping and imprisoning her favorite author is alarmingly plausible. Whenever King concentrates on the monster within, chills are guaranteed run down the spine.

And it doesn't get more chilling than Apt Pupil, which is based on the King novella of the same name.

Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) is a 16-year-old high school student with a fascination with the macabre, especially the heartless Second World War genocide committed by Nazi Germany.

Spotting an old man on a bus one day, Bowden puts two and two together and realizes that Nazi war criminal Kurt Dussander (Sir Ian McKellen) has been quietly living a few blocks away.

After literally stalking and surveilling Dussander, Bowden arrives on his doorstep one day and blackmails him into daily after-school meetings where Dussander must detail the atrocities committed at Auschwitz in exchange for Bowden's silence. Failure to comply means that Bowden blows the whistle on Dussander's alias to the Israeli authorities.

At first, Dussander denies his identity, but once confronted with evidence resigns to his fate. Thus begins an unholy alliance, a game of cat-and-mouse that will have dire consequences for all.

As the chain-smoking Dussander pores through his stories, Bowden becomes increasingly affected by the sinister nature of his criminal acts and the detached demeanor in which he's describing them.

As a result, the student becomes withdrawn, has trouble sleeping, and even sexually dysfunctional. Even worse for a young college hopeful ,his grades slip to the point where his future education is threatened.

It's the opening Dussander needs. Posing as Bowden's grandfather, he manipulates a scenario that will enable the boy to recapture his academic standing. It's the beginning of the transfer of power, and as the pendulum swings from puppet to puppeteer, director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects ) implements the transition with the insidious expertise of a chessmaster, bolstered by Brandon Boyce's fine screenplay. The tug-of-war tension, heightened by the consistent atmosphere of distrust, never wavers.

Having Ian McKellen in the principal role certainly helps. McKellen offers the performance of a lifetime as Dussander, the wily fugitive whose immorality is awakeneed from slumber by Bowden. He's a tough old buzzard with a disarming smirk that covertly suggests a deep satisfaction with his lot in life. McKellen plays Dussander with such beguiling charm that you barely notice the metaphorical knife until its firmly twisted into your rib cage. Even when he's confronted by a heart attack as he's committing assault on a derelict ( Crash's  Elias Koteas), Dussander manipulates the situation with the cold calculation of a military masochist.

Brad Renfro also acquits himself admirably as Todd Bowden, the inquisitive student with the heart of coal. As much as he seemingly abhors his Swastika fantasies, he's drawn to explore a his dark side under Dussander's adept tutelage that he comes to relish.

He's an unlikable character, a pushy young snot who shows his own propensity for torment as he humiliates Dussander into donning a soldier's costume and marching at his command.

Renfro plays Bowden with such intensity that you can almost see his irises blacken whenever he's faced with a situation that must be dealt with harshly and with absolution. He scares the bejesus out of the school counsellor (David Schwimmer, Friends ) with an inventive threat near the end of the film that reveals the terrifying depth of Dussander's influence.

Apt Pupil  is no walk in the park. It's a disturbing film that poses a lot of uneasy questions and no comforting answers.

As much as it suggests that the sinister side of human nature may be bubbling just under the surface, an even more frightening concept is that evil may be lurking in the guise of someone you know -- or even worse -- love.






-- Nick Krewen


Directed by Bryan Singer. A Sony Tristar Picture. Opens October 23.





1993 -- Public Access

1995 -- The Usual Suspects

1998 -- Apt Pupil

THANKS: Beth Rimmels, Beth Greenfield

© 1998, 1999 Nick Krewen



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