Apt Pupil

Reviewed by Chris Galloway


Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 2.35:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Dolby Surround [CC], subtitles: English, double side-single layer, 28 chapters, rated R, 111 min., $24.95, street date 4/13/99.

Studio Line

Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring Brad Renfro, Ian McKellen, Joshua Jackson, Bruce Davison, Ann Dowd, David Schwimmer.

Ian McKellen and Brad Rentro star in a dark drama about a sixteen-year-old honor student who recognizes an old man living in his hometown as a hunted Nazi. Compelled to reveal the secrets of his death camp pat to earn the boy's silence, the German fugitive derives a sinister scheme to implicate the teenager in a dangerous psychological game.

Picture/Sound/Extras (A/B/C-)

Stephen King is probably one of the most under rated authors ever. Because of his success most people see him as just a schlock writer, bringing out quick profitable trash. That's not really the case, though. While some of his novels are schlock (and his knowing it makes them all the more entertaining) a majority of them offer a lot in substance, thought and scares.

Some authors try all their lives to write the great American novel. Stephen King managed to write three in one collection. His collection of novellas called "Different Seasons" had probably three of his best and definitely most memorable stories, all reflecting certain elements of America. "The Body" is a classic coming of age tale turned into a classic film called Stand By Me. "Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption" is one that most fans were not used to since it was a.) a prison story, b.) a story about friendship and c.) a very optimistic story. And that one led to one of the most beloved movies in recent memory. While most of the stories in that collection were actually quite uplifting, there was one that was a bit of a downer but still a great story called "Apt Pupil".

The story was a very disturbing one, probably one of the masters more terrifying ones because it was his most believable. It is a tale of young Todd Bowden who discovers the identity of an elderly man in his town. This man is Kurt Dussander, a war criminal who was responsible for the death of thousands of Jews during the Second World War. The boy doesn't want to turn him in, though. No, he wants to learn from the old man. Todd is obsessed with the holocaust but school doesn't cover all the details he wants to know. Only someone who actually participated could tell him the tidbits he wants to know. And if the old man does not tell him what he wants to know he will turn him in.

What happens is the old man begins to rub off onto the young boy and Todd begins doing worse in school, haunted by Dussander's stories, acting a little odd around family and friends and then eventually experimenting on the local homeless. And once it may be realized by others as to the old mans actual identity, Todd finds himself in a whole lot of trouble.

The story was about evil in its purist form and what is more evil than the holocaust? Not much else I can say. King was never glorifying it or sensationalizing it, it was a symbol for pure evil as was Dussander. Someone who freely (and it was hinted enjoyed) killed thousands upon thousands is the furthest thing from a "nice guy".

King also made an interesting relationship between the two. The two constantly kept "screwing" each other over with one thing or another. First it was Todd threatening to turn him in. Then it's Dussander threatening to bring Todd down with him and so on, never seeming as if the two would get away from this situation scott free. While the two never really liked each other, they obviously respected each other and also learned an awful lot from one another.

It was a very powerful story I found but never expected it to be turned into a movie. The backdrop of the holocaust would be too much for some people I figured and that doesn't ring box office in my opinion. But was I ever surprised to go to the theater with a buddy and see a theatrical trailer for it. All I had to hear was a young boy say "I want to hear everything they're afraid to teach us in school" and I knew immediately what movie it was going to be.

I did see it and I will have to say I was a bit disappointed but I found the movie still rather true to the book. The sub-plot involving Todd killing the homeless and doing a few things to them was left out, but I found that good because in a book it's easier to deal with subject matter like that. On the screen it's a little tougher since you HAVE to see it.

Director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects and this summer's X-Men) did a terrific job bringing the story onto screen. He decided not to let the holocaust drown out the true story of the relationship between Todd and Dussander, which would have been extremely easy and tempting to do. A couple scenes do come off as hokey such as a scene where Todd makes Dussander wear an imitation SS uniform and march around in it. And a scene involving Dussander trying to cook a cat in the oven seems a desperate attempt to get a shock out of the viewer. But I will say I liked the ending to this one a whole lot more than the book. It's definitely more shocking and more powerful.

Ian McKellan delivers a first rate performance as Kurt Dussander. He delivers most of his lines with an immense amount of relish, like one of my favorite lines in the book ". we're both f*$#ing each other." His very presence is incredibly creepy. He even keeps that during his laughable scene marching in the uniform. I didn't find Brad Renfro too engaging, though, which is quite a shame since this role has so much going for it. He seems incredibly laid back, never mustering any real menace or personality in Todd. This character in the book was pretty creepy but doesn't do too much for me in the movie.

It is a good adaptation and one of the better King movies out there. It was highly overlooked in its theatrical run, which I was expecting considering the holocaus backdrop. The movie wasn't as thrilling or chilling as it could have been, but it is still a rather entertaining and interesting character study. Anybody looking for a regular thriller will find it quite slow.

Columbia Tri-Star brings a pretty good DVD out for the film. The disc is double-sided and single-layered. The film is presented in both widescreen and standard aspect ratios, each on one side. The widescreen presentation is presented in a ratio of approximately 2.35:1 and is enhanced for widescreen TVs.

The picture is quite good on both sides (a couple of my friends hate widescreen so I have seen both versions). The movie is shot using very plain colors to give off a cold and quiet mood. No bright colors really make an appearance but the colors that do appear are well saturated and very strong. Black levels are perfect, making darker scenes appear very clearly.

Sharpness is a very strong aspect on this disc. Softness never occurs except obviously on objects out of focus in the background. I never noticed a moment of shimmering, moiré effects or any jagged edges. The print also presents no flaws at all. No specs, no dirt, no debris and no grain. CTS delivers another outstanding picture transfer.

The movie is not an effect-ridden film; it's a talkie movie so you can't expect much from the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track. The forward stage gets the biggest job and is used quite effectively, panning very accurately between them. The center channel also carries a lot of the dialogue. Everything is crystal clear and very easy to hear.

The surrounds don't have much to do. Music is what uses them most, as do some ambience effects. I also noticed the scene in the gym used them a bit to present the echo. It's not going to win awards but it serves the movie well. Your woofer never gets any use, though, which is a bit of a shame because there are some scenes that would have worked well with it. Still, for what the movie is I have no complaints about its soundtrack.

Supplements is where the disc skimps us. The biggest one unfortunately is the short featurette on here that is nothing but an extended commercial. You also get cast and crew biographies for Ian McKellan, Brad Renfro and Bryan Singer. And like almost all of CTS' biographies they really give us offering next to no information. And you finally get the theatrical trailer. Oh yeah, and like almost all of their DVD's a booklet is also included, containing one page of info on the production and its reception upon its release.

And that covers it. While not heavy in extras, the movie is presented in a wonderful way on this disc with a great picture and a pretty good soundtrack. For those that like the movie and find it worth buying, get it. The film is worth a rental to others, preferably on this DVD. But if you're looking for something really creepy, read the book instead.

Related Sites

Current as of 3/8/2000

James Berardinelli's ReelViews--"Apt Pupil offends because of the exploitative manner in which it addresses Holocaust- related themes."
Roger Ebert--"The film reveals itself as unworthy of its subject matter."
Amazon.com--Available to purchase are the DVD at special discount, the book Apt Pupil: A Novella in Different Seasons by Stephen King, and the original score soundtrack composed by Larry Groupe and John Ottman.
Reel.com--Purchase the DVD at special discount.

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