Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Wednesday Horror: Apt Pupil

Film: Apt Pupil
Format: DVD from Homer Township Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

Stephen King’s novella collection “Different Seasons” contains four stories, three of which have been turned into films. The first story is “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” which was turned into The Shawshank Redemption, a film that lives on IMDB’s top-250 in the top position with good reason. The second is called “The Body,” which was turned into Stand By Me, also on IMDB’s top-250. The third is Apt Pupil, clearly the least of the three and the only one to keep the name of the original story. However, that’s not saying a lot when the movies its being compared to are as highly regarded as they are. Additionally, one wonders about the fate of the fourth story, “The Sun Dog,” about a demonic creature trapped inside a Polaroid camera.

In many ways, Apt Pupil is one of King’s darkest and most disturbing stories. Much of that is because it deals with fascism overtly, but also because it’s entirely believable. There’s no supernatural here; there’s just evil. The high concept is that a straight-A high school student named Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) becomes fascinated by his history class’s lessons on the Holocaust. He studies it on his own and discovers that his neighbor Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen) is actually Kurt Dussander, a notorious concentration camp leader currently wanted by the Israelis for war crimes. Rather than turning Dussander in, Todd starts visiting him every day after school to hear about the atrocities that he committed.

Things intensify when it becomes clear that Todd’s fascination runs deeper than just wanting to hear the stories. This is evident when he sends away for a replica SS uniform and forces Kurt to wear it for him. Todd’s obsession also leads to his grades dropping precipitously, resulting in a letter home from Edward French (David Schwimmer), his school counsellor. Kurt temporarily rescues Todd by pretending to be his grandfather and spinning a number of tales and arranging a deal. If Todd can pull straight As on his finals, his teachers will ignore his midterm grades. Todd studies for a month solid, makes his grades, and ends his relationship with his Nazi idol. It ends with great tension, since both have something on the other. Todd has a file, fingerprints, and information to send Dussander to Israel. For his part, Dussander has written a document about his relationship with Todd and stored it in a safe deposit box.

But the two are inexorably linked. When Dussander realizes that a homeless man (Elias Koteas) has seen him in the uniform, he attempts to kill the man, but suffers a heart attack and needs Todd to finish the job for him. And when his hospital roommate turns out to be a Holocaust survivor who recognizes him, things get much darker much more quickly.

The only real issue I might have with Apt Pupil is that it changes much of King’s original story. To discuss this, I need to spoil both.


In the story, there’s a great deal more overt hatred of Jews expressed by both Kurt Dussander and Todd Bowden. This is almost completely absent from the film. Todd, while fascinated with fascism in the movie is essentially a fascist in King’s original. Additionally, while Kurt and Todd kill the homeless man in the movie, in the story, both go on a murder spree of the homeless to work out their aggression and evident fascist fantasies/memories. In that respect, the movie is a lot softer than the darkness to which King descends.

But the ending is different. When Dussander is captured by the Israelis in the story, Ed French confronts Todd about his “grandfather.” Todd responds by killing French and then going on a shooting spree until he is gunned down. In the film, the same confrontation happens, but Todd blackmails his counsellor instead, and essentially gets away with everything. While less spectacular, it’s actually a hell of a lot darker and more disturbing.


In truth, I’m labelling Apt Pupil as a horror movie only because it’s on one of my horror lists. This is really much more of a psychological thriller than anything. But it’s also in many ways a very tame one despite its subject matter. The film doesn’t delve at all into the psychology of what is happening here, and that psychology is the most interesting part of King’s story. This is a topic that needs depth, and Apt Pupil simply doesn’t have that depth.

I’m not expecting Le Chagrin et la Pitie here, but director Bryan Singer has a situation where he can explore what might turn someone from essentially the all-American boy into a fascist killer, and he simply ignores it. The story here is just something that happens rather than happening for a reason, and that reason is really needed to make everything make sense. It’s a missed opportunity. Sure, people would argue about whether or not he got it right, but to ignore that completely seems lazy at best and cowardly at worst.

So, while Apt Pupil is a decent little film, it’s ultimately a disappointing one.

Why to watch Apt Pupil: It’s dark, even for Stephen King, and it seems particularly relevant today.
Why not to watch: It’s just surface with no depth.


  1. This was so horrendously dark that outside of the excellent performances by McKellen and Renfro I found very worth in it.

    1. It is dark, and it's oddly dark without purpose, and that's my problem with it. If it explored why this might happen, I'd see more of a point to it. It comes across as prurient because of that.