Bryan Singer's adaptation of the the Stephen King novella _Apt_Pupil_
opens with images one would associate with such a title. A high school
student receives an "A" on a paper and then shuttles off to the library,
immersing himself in research as the opening titles unspool. As this dark,
often disturbing psychological thriller progresses, the title's meaning
remains the same, except it gradually takes on a much more sinister
The apt pupil seen at the opening of the film is 16-year-old high school
student Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro), whose intense extracurricular research
on the Holocaust leads him to discover that one Arthur Denker (Ian
McKellen), an old man whom he has seen around town, is really Nazi war
criminal-in-hiding Kurt Dussander. But instead of turning him in, Todd
proposes an odd exchange: his silence in return for Dussander's first-hand
accounts of wartime atrocities.
Of course, dredging up the past brings to the surface Dussander's fascist
tendencies, but _Apt_Pupil_ goes one step further in that the stories bring
forth Todd's capacity for evil as well; it is this psychological seduction
that lends the film a queasy fascination. Singer and screenwriter Brandon
Boyce also go against the populist Hollywood grain by boldly making the
already fairly unsympathetic characters _moreso_ as the film goes on.
While the absence of a likable lead character will certainly off-put many
moviegoers, and one contrived plot development is a bit hard to swallow,
audiences are nonetheless more than likely to remain riveted by Renfro and
McKellen's dead-on performances. Renfro's evolution from curious
adolescent to hateful manipulator is unsettlingly believable while
McKellen, speaking with a perfect German accent, gives Dussander an air of
quiet majesty that is as frightening as it is deceiving.
While he heavily uses quick cuts and horrifying imagery, Singer admirably
eschews easy "shock" gimmicks to jolt the audience out their seats.
Instead, he appears more concerned with the collective effect of a variety
shocks, visual and otherwise, on the viewer's psyche. As such, _Apt_Pupil_
gets under the skin like few thrillers do. A mad slasher with an axe does
not necessarily constitute a successful frightfest; what does is the
feeling of terror that comes with being pursued by such a force of evil.
_Apt_Pupil_'s primary force of evil may be axe-less and of poor physical
health, but his--and the film's--subtle brand of cerebral terror cuts
sharper and deeper than anything found in a more conventional horror movie.