Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Stephen King Month: Apt Pupil (1998)

Apt Pupil occupies an interesting middle ground between Stephen King's straight-up horror work and his more realistic stories about coming of age and the bonds between men. The novella is in the same collection as The Body (aka Stand By Me) and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, both of which were made into uplifting, crowd-pleasing movies that became enduring classics. The movie version of Apt Pupil definitely isn't a classic, but it's not because director Bryan Singer screwed anything up; the story is a nasty reversal of King's penchant for nostalgia, as its all-American teenage protagonist doesn't muster the strength to fight unimaginable evil or achieve hard-won maturity through overcoming trauma. Instead, Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) embraces the evil, even encourages it, and it all takes place in sun-dappled suburbs without a hint of anything supernatural. King is generally too operatic of a storyteller to take on the banality of everyday evil, but here he does just that.

Singer actually tones down some of the extremes of King's story, although in the process he manages to make the ending more disturbing in a certain way. The seemingly perfect Todd (straight A's, good at sports, keeps out of trouble) develops an unhealthy obsession with the Holocaust, and when he figures out that his elderly, reclusive neighbor (Ian McKellen) is actually a former Nazi commander in disguise, he blackmails the guy into telling him stories about wartime atrocities. Todd clearly gets off on hearing about all the terrible things that Kurt Dussander did, and Dussander clearly relishes being able to honestly represent himself for the first time in decades. It's almost weirdly touching, especially when Dussander uses his manipulative abilities to set Todd straight in school.

But of course it's also totally fucked up, and no matter how normal he may seem on the outside, Todd is a complete sociopath, even more dangerous for the way that no one suspects him of anything sinister. Dussander, too, is a nasty piece of work, and his sessions with Todd reawaken a cruelty that he had kept hidden for years and years. Renfro and McKellen are both very good here, playing up the cliches of the inspirational-mentor story while peppering them with glimpses of total sadism. Singer plays up the homoerotic aspects of the pair's relationship, which is disturbing but also sort of distracting, conflating homosexual desire with homicidal impulses, surely not the director's intent. Still, the dynamic between the two is suspenseful and disquieting, and Singer and King never let the audience off the hook by explaining away the characters' motivations via some supernatural force.

As in the novella, though, the story goes on longer than it should, and once Todd and Dussander part for the first time, the movie meanders. (Spoilers ahead.) Since Singer compresses the timeline and takes out the multiple murders of vagrants that Todd and Dussander commit independent of each other, the movie's final third loses some of its visceral power, and it's hard to gauge Todd's development as a character as the movie heads to a close. While King's Todd is unambiguously evil and unafraid to act on it, Singer's Todd is more subtle, eschewing outright murder in favor of threats and intimidation. King takes Todd down at the end of the story, offering a sort of bittersweet comeuppance, but Singer lets him live, hinting that Todd's days of mistreating and abusing people are just beginning. It's a chilling capper to the story, although it can't quite make up for the muddled half-hour or so that precedes it.

How far to Castle Rock: Both book and movie take place in sunny Southern California, an appropriately jarring setting for the tale of dark evil lurking in plain sight.

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