Revisiting the film of Stephen King’s Apt Pupil

A mesmerising Ian McKellen radicalises his teenage neighbour in Bryan Singer's 1998 Stephen King adaptation

The film: Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) discovers that his neighbour, Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), is a former Nazi Sturmbannführer who worked at a death camp during the Second World War. Fascinated with Dussander, Todd blackmails the older man into telling stories about his role in the day-to-day workings of genocide. The pair become locked in an increasingly twisted relationship that escalates into violence.

Bryan Singer’s film wasn’t the first attempt to adapt Stephen King’s novella Apt Pupil (from Different Seasons, home of the source material for both Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Originally, James Mason and Richard Burton were both lined up to play Kurt Dussander, but died before their respective projects kicked off. Nicol Williamson would play the role in a 1987 adaptation, which went massively over budget almost instantly and was shut down just six weeks into shooting.

Singer had read the novella when he was 19 and took the chance to produce a spec script with writer Brandon Boyce. King had managed to get the rights back to his story and offered the rights to Singer for $1, in the manner of his Dollar Babies scheme. Boyce and Singer reworked the novella’s ending and reduced the level of violence in the plot in order to create a more character-driven horror. Much of the film is simply conversations between Todd and Dussander, shot in claustrophobic close-ups and odd angles to emphasise the intensity of their developing relationship.

With the current rise of the far right across the globe, it’s hard to avoid the resonance in watching Apt Pupil in this current climate. There’s a radicalisation at work here as Dussander’s mentoring transforms Todd from someone who is merely fascinated with violence to someone who can commit it. Though Todd initially starts their relationship with all the control, the power dynamics shift throughout, seen most obviously during the scene in which Todd forces Dussander to wear an SS uniform and march on the spot. As Todd’s instructions escalate, Dussander’s instinct takes over and he performs a Nazi salute before ignoring Todd completely, scaring the teenager into asking him to stop.

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As that scene demonstrates, the one thing the film is not is subtle. The film begins pointedly and ominously, as a teacher closes up his week on the Holocaust with his class by erasing the chalk pie chart of its victims from the board as the camera focuses in on the word Jews. The stories related by Dussander are extremely graphic too, a chilling perspective of a man who not only committed atrocities, but seemed to take a relish in doing so. The violence here isn’t physical, but psychological. However, beyond the obvious “Nazism was bad” message, there is a distinct lack of depth in the film’s examinations of Dussander’s past and Todd’s relationship to it. Only once does Apt Pupil take stock of the cost of Dussander’s actions, a scene in which one of his former prisoners recognises him and breaks down in wordless hysteria. The rest of the film can’t quite separate itself from Todd’s glorification.

The performances of McKellen and Renfro are the film’s saving grace, imbuing their scenes together with an intensity that ensures that, even as the narrative becomes repetitive, there’s something to anchor the audience within it. The chemistry between the pair works well with the shifting dynamic of their relationship, particularly in the earlier scenes when the characters are testing each other out and seeing which boundaries can be pushed. David Schwimmer plays the role of Todd’s high school guidance counsellor and is a suitably unnerved foil for the gleeful machinations of the central pair. Schwimmer plays his final scene with a subtlety not seen elsewhere and the slow realisation of what Todd is both suggesting and capable of is registered in the shifting expression of his face.

Apt Pupil is a film that knows it has something to say about its subjects, but is a little too obsessed with their relationship to take a step back and offer the audience a richness that is present in other horror films.

Scariest moment: The aforementioned scene in which Dussander dons the SS uniform and is forced to march is truly the most chilling moment, especially when the salute appears. For the animal lovers, I’m sure the cat versus the oven would scare the living daylights out of them.

Musicality: As well as a rather sinister score, Apt Pupil also uses German music, such as Wagner and the song Das Ist Berlin, to punctuate some of its key scenes. Liebestod (meaning ‘love death’) from Tristan Und Isolde plays over a particularly crucial moment.

A King thing: The mentor relationship. There are a few instances in King’s work that pair an older figure with a younger one in order to guide them through their experiences. One such example is Dick Hallorann’s aid to Danny Torrance, and Danny takes over the role himself in Doctor Sleep. Here, there is a very twisted version of that relationship, one that leads further into darkness rather than away from it.

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Join me next time, Constant Reader, for The Rage: Carrie 2…