Horror movie fans are no stranger to Nazi imagery. Dead Snow, Outpost, Green Room, and Overlord (which comes out later this year) are all horror flicks that prominently feature Nazi villains. But none of those take on the seriousness of Apt Pupil. Its tone served as both its strong point and its downfall– depending on how you believe the subject matter to be handled. And while it was deemed both a critical and commercial failure (costing $14 million and making back less than $9 million), it features sharp direction from Bryan Singer and hypnotizing performances from its two leads, Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro.
Apt Pupil follows a 16-year-old high school student named Todd (Renfro), who discovers that his elderly neighbor, Arthur (McKellen) has a dark history– his real name is Kurt Dussander and he was a high-ranking Nazi who had worked to perpetuate genocide through extermination camps during the war. Arthur is now a quiet, shut-in who rarely socializes in fear that he’d be discovered as a war criminal and wanted fugitive.
Rather than turn Arthur in to authorities, Todd blackmails him by threatening to alert the police of his true identity in order to get Arthur to tell him stories about his days as a Nazi. Arthur seems to have a disturbing fascination with Arthur’s past, although his intentions and motivations are unclear.
Over time, Arthur develops a grandfatherly bond with Todd and even helps him improve his grades when their time together distracts Todd from his studies. Todd’s fascination with Arthur escalates, with Todd buying Arthur an SS uniform from a costume shop and forcing Arthur to wear it. In retelling his stories (and thus reliving them), Arthur slowly reignites some of his past deepest, darkest urges.
Released in 1998, Apt Pupil had a rough road from King’s 1982 novella of the same way to its final cinematic release. Richard Kobritz’s attempt at adapting the novella in the 1980s failed after two of the actors he invited to play Arthur died. Later production shut down after funding ran out. Bryan Singer, who had already gained prestige for his 1995 neo-noir crime thriller The Usual Suspects, later obtained the rights to the novella and even had the support of King. McKellen was soon attached to the role of Arthur, who was attracted to the complexity of the role.
One of the most common complaints is in regards to the idea of the film itself– a psychological horror film centered around a Nazi war criminal slowly (and perhaps unknowingly) indoctrinating a high school-aged boy, with both characters growing increasingly evil. Whether or not the film is worthy of even touching on such tragic subject matter is certainly debatable, as it doesn’t necessarily contain an overarching message. It wouldn’t be difficult to broadly paint Apt Pupil as exploitative of its Nazi imagery.
Among the detractors of Apt Pupil’s themes was Roger Ebert who wrote in his two-star review of the film, “The theme is intriguing: A teenager discovers the old man’s real identity, and blackmails him into telling stories about his wartime experiences. But when bodies are buried in cellars and cats are thrown into lighted ovens, the film reveals itself as unworthy of its subject matter.”
Nevertheless, Apt Pupil is finely acted– with Renfro winning Best Actor at the Tokyo Internation Film Festival and McKellen winning a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor. McKellen portrays the evilness of Arthur with mounting tension that culminates in a frantic, explosive fashion. And Renfro performs in a characteristically conflicted, confrontational, and chilling manner– despite only being 14 years old at the time.
Singer’s direction treads the line tonally between sadistic but restrained and over-the-top grotesque. The X-Men director omitted a great deal of the violence, gore, and sex out of King’s source material– including one instance where Arthur recalls raping a 16-year-old Jewish virgin as part of some Nazi experiment as well as the novella’s finale which involves Todd losing his sanity and going on a shooting spree over a busy freeway before eventually being shot.
When Singer proposed adapting King’s novella, he set out to craft a “study in cruelty.” And he accomplished just that. If you can stomach the true-to-life bleakness and malice oozing from each scene, Apt Pupil is poignant look at a mentor-pupil relationship with a sadistic twist.