Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel
APT  PUPIL * (1998)

Directed by Bryan Singer.Written by Brandon Boyce,based on the novella by Stephen King. Photography, Newton Thomas Sigel. Editing,John Ottman. Production design, Richard Hoover. Music, Ottman. Produced by Jane Hamsher, Don Murphy and Singer. Cast: Ian McKellen (Kurt Dussander, aka Mr. Denker ), Brad Renfro (Todd Bowden), Bruce Davison (Richard Bowden), Elias Koteas (Archie), Joe Morton (Dan Richler) and David Schwimmer (Edward French). A Phoenix Pictures and Tri-Star Pictures release. 100 minutes. R (violence, language)

Stephen King is the Bill Gates of contemporary fright fiction, the Microsoft of text-to-screen adaptations--some 50 of them, counting TV items.

The features have ranged from good (Carrie, Christine, The Shining, Cujo, Stand by Me, Misery, Dolores Claiborne) to quite bad. The last of the turkeys I remember seeing was Needful Things. Apt Pupil is just as objectionable. Attempting to be a Holocaust Horror movie --a redundant phrase-- it results in an offensively dumb exploitation of the Holocaust (in Hebrew, Shoah).

In a small California town, 16-year old senior Todd Bowden is the shining light of his class. After a History unit at school he becomes fascinated by the Holocaust. He scours the improbably well-stocked (including old photographs) public library. He also uses the Internet database of the University of California at Irvine. (I have spent hours trying to locate those files. Still trying.)

Unlikelihoods and impossibilities of the size of Titanic's fatal iceberg accumulate without respite. On a city bus, Todd spots in a flash (!) a heavily bearded, glass-wearing septuagenarian (Ian McKellen) as  Kurt Dussander, a war-criminal SS officer of two death camps. That's 40-plus years after the fact, but Todd remembers sharply the photographs of a young, minor Nazi who did not even have especially memorable features!!!

The boy sleuths, learns that the old fellow is a Mr. Arthur Denker, a sort of recluse whose ramshackle house is (how convenient!)  not far from Todd's. Todd, has confirmed his identification by dusting the fingerprints on the old man's mailbox. (That UC-Irvine database must be something!) He forces his way in, and blackmails Denker-Dussander. In exchange for his silence, the boy wants the still-wanted Nazi killer to go into the gory details of death-camps: " "I want to hear about everything they're afraid to show us in school."

Long tete-a-tete sessions follow, with the German gradually satisfying Todd's morbid, sick, pathological curiosity for horrid details. If all this could still be acceptable as a clinical case, the factual details of the tale are pushed to the limits of fabrication. How did Denker subsist for years in America? Why he is using an antique Victrola to play music? (Movie Nazis, of course, all love grandiose music, especially Wagner's). Where does Todd find a pristine SS uniform and cap as a Christmas gift to Denker?

 He forces Denker to don the outfit and strut around as Todd barks orders. The unsubtle point here is twofold. Denker, who just may have shown  (it's all too vague) to Todd a smidgen of humanity, now gets a nostalgic taste for his old Master Race, uniformed self. Traces of evil resurface. More to the film's half-baked point, Todd himself is rapidly becoming corrupted. That's  the bottom line of the movie: evil begets evil; the banality of evil. So, what else is new?

More. Todd has told his family that, charitably, he reads for an old fellow. Mr. Denker is invited to dinner. No longer unkempt, he looks and sounds not like an aged Nazi but like a courtly, hand-kissing Jewish gentleman. He states that during World War II his bad eyesight kept him from active military duty. Yet even in old age he wears thin glasses. To add cuteness to goofs, we later see Denker chortling at the nearsighted Mr. Magoo on TV. Even the names "Todd" and "Dussander" may be in-"jokes" about the German words for "death" and "other."

The plot gets exponentially creepy, unpleasant and dumb. Denker turns the blackmail table around by telling Todd that he now has a bank box with papers telling all about Todd. In way overdone resurgent cruelty Denker throws a wandering cat into a lit gas-stove. That's  a pretty disgusting reference to Jews in camp crematoria. Separately but equally Todd smashes a bird that has a bad wing, This has to refer to the Nazis' "euthanasia" program that predated the Holocaust:  killing people with physical or mental defects.

Ugliness  mounts in irritating, obscure and arbitrary ways. Example: a film projection is attended by laughing young students, and by Mr. Denker. The movie is not shown but the German song "This is Berlin" is sung on the soundtrack. Makes no sense.

Just as outrageously artificial is the appearance of a smelly bum (Elias Koteas) who might also blackmail Denker. This (don't ask) leads to graphic violence and murder, to knife stabbing, head-smashing by shovel, etc. It involves the homeless fellow, Denker, Todd as well as a heart-attack--then somehow leads to a hospital, to the FBI and the Mossad (the Israeli Secret Services), to a providential hospital roommate of Denker's who just happens to be a Jewish death-camp survivor, and enough more nonsense and cliches, like the old favorite of the presumed dead rising up again.

There is just one semi-valid subplot. Todd's obsession and neglect of schoolwork have brought his grades way down. Mr. French, the school's guidance counselor, sends a notice to the boy's parents. It is swiped, but Denker, unbeknownst to Todd posing as the kid's grandpa, makes a deal with French, who has Todd cram,  get back to his straight A level in the last three weeks of school and -would you believe it? --deliver the Commencement speech!

At least, in the finale, the blatant fantasy of this ridiculous situation manages to crown the distateful movie's mess with a show of Todd's disturbing transformation.

Brad Renfro plays his feminine-looking Todd as an unpleasant type with an almost  imperturbable face. Britain's Ian McKellen does his part with over-the-top theatricality. But his German accent seems pretty good.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel