It's the time of year that we get inexplicably caught up in the celebration of ghouls and monsters and all sorts of darkly themed pagan rituals. As such, it would seem a propitious moment to release Apt Pupil, a quasithriller based on Stephen King's novella of the same name, which explores the corrupting allure of evil. Yet by placing the story against the horrors of the Holocaust and reducing it to the shallowness of a mere "thriller" (and a mediocre one at that) the film sinks not only into irrationality, but just plain bad taste.
Sixteen-year-old Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro, The Client) is a diligent, straight-A high school student (which must account for his deadpan humorlessness). During his history class' week devoted to the Holocaust, Todd becomes mesmerized by tales of the Third Reich and, good student that he is, sets off to the library to feed his growing obsession. Is his fixation fueled by horror or fascination? We never know.
One afternoon Todd stares in amazement at a weathered old man (Sir Ian McKellen) slumped in the back of a bus, and soon Todd shows up on the man's doorstep with photos and accusations. Is the man quiet retiree Arthur Denker, as he claims, or Kurt Dussander, former SS concentration-camp commander and Nazi war criminal, as Todd insists? The answer isn't hard to figure out.
Being the brainy type, Todd sets out a meticulous blackmail plot: Dussander must tell him all about the atrocities he committed as a Nazi or Todd sends his scrupulously gathered dossier proving Dussander's identity to Israel. This unlikely device sets the stage for a bizarre relationship that eventually flowers into that of monster tutor and ardent apprentice. Increasing the incredulity is McKellen's his usual brilliantly nuanced performance; his Dussander, malevolently charming and shrewd, seems far too cunning for him to fall for so slender a threat from such an unimposing source. Renfro's one-note, slack-jawed performance gives Todd very little character development as he moves from all-American middle-class white boy to menacing tyro tyrant.
One of the many other problems is that first-time scripter Brandon Boyce and director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) only seem interested in (or capable of) skimming the surface of a truly powerful topic: the sinister and perverted seductiveness of power coupled with violence. A few black-and-white stills of glowering Nazis and their brutalized Jewish victims, some nightmare shower sequences, the attempted murder of a cat using an oven, and a hapless homeless man stand in for any real exploration of the nature of evil. These scenes hardly provide any penetrating idea of the dreadful appeal of the barbaric National Socialist dogma that continues to inspire young men to shave their heads, tattoo swastikas on themselves, and vent their rage upon the world.
Remarkably, the Museum of Tolerance at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles gave this clumsy, shallow film its support, which feels like a mistake. But then, this is the season for the mysterious and inexplicable.