"Boy, be careful. You play with fire." - Kurt Dussander
As there’s such a resurgence of public interest in the work of Stephen King, I thought it’d be remiss of me not to include some of the film adaptations of his stories in this year’s 13 Screams. After all, what’s Halloween without Stephen King?
To kick off the handful of King based movies I’ve selected, I thought I’d go with one that’s often overlooked and sadly under-rated. The year before Bryan Singer, Ian McKellen and Bruce Davidson worked together on the X-Men movie, they got together for this one, based on a novella by King, published in Different Seasons. The book also contains the basis for Stand by Me (The Body) and The Shawshank Redemption (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption).
Apt Pupil is, as you might expect from King, a horror tale. But it’s not horror in the conventional sense. There is indeed a monster, but it is human in form and its evil is contagious. No vampires, no zombies, no ghosts, no evil clowns. Yet this is one of the most disturbing tales to ooze from the pen of the master. And on reflection, the film adaptation is one of the most shocking. It contains what I consider Ian McKellen’s most powerful performance in any film. Ever. (And yes, that includes the Tolkien adaptations.)
Yet, curiously, not many people have seen it. Maybe it hits too close to home. Maybe it touches a nerve that there’s a credibility here that is a little bit uncomfortable to audiences, used to more supernatural and other less likely to occur events in their horror movies.
Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) is a straight A high school student who becomes fascinated with the history of the Nazi holocaust and death camps, his fascination from a historical point of view in his sociology class grows to a morbid obsession of wanting to know every last detail about the camps. He spots an elderly gentleman by the name of Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen) a recluse, and spots an uncanny resemblance to Kurt Dussander, a kommandant at one of the death camps. Using photographs and fingerprints, Boden concludes that this is indeed the fugitive war criminal, wanted for sending hundreds to their deaths.
But Bowden, with the arrogance of youth, isn’t interested in bringing the monster to justice. He wants Dussander to give his own eye witness accounts of the suffering he caused, how long various gases took to kill the victims, how they died – he wants all the inside information.
Dussander doesn’t want to open that particular can of worms, but Bowden starts to blackmail him, threatening to expose Dussander’s true identity to the world. And so begins the cat and mouse game.
Bowden has no idea what he’s doing, nor the consequences. He’s convinced he has the old man at his mercy, and actually starts to goad him, at one point buying a Nazi uniform for Dussander to wear at his bidding. This leads to a genuinely disturbing scene in which the horror and the menace lie entirely with McKellen’s chilling performance and the subtle manner in which he changes his expression and his posture. Bowden orders him to march on the spot, turning right 90 degrees ever few seconds so that by the end of the exercise, Dussander has marched on the spot and executed a full 360 degree turn. When his back is turned to Bowden, we see Dussander effect this change as Bowden has unwittingly awakened the Nazi that had lain dormant for so long. As the old man’s steps become sharper and more precise, we can’t help but see the arrogant strut and smirk slowly appear. The frail, helpless old man has left. Now Boden has a tiger by the tail. He’s not dealing with a senior citizen any more, he’s dealing with someone who is a cold, unfeeling, calculating killer. The rules have changed and Bowden is too stupid to realise it.
Bowden’s grades slip badly in half a semester, and he knows he’s in trouble – but Dussander turns up at the school, posing as the teenager’s concerned grandfather, promising the school counsellor (David Schwimmer) that he will make Boden study for better grades. Bowden is furious with this interference, and is only beginning to realise that the balance of power in his little game is changing inexorably.
In as much as Bowden has a file on Dussander, which he’s using as insurance, i.e. the file will be found in the event of Bowden’s death, Dussander now has a similar file on the kid. In desperation, Bowden destroys all the information he has, which only puts him in a weaker position.
There is no turning back for either of them, but much as Dussander is now in a position to manipulate his young tormentor, Bowden himself has become tainted with the evil of him mentor which is, as all evil is, contagious to the weak minded. As much as Bowden has awakened a sleeping monster in the Nazi, the Nazi has created a monster in Bowden.
And that’s all I’m going to say – if you haven’t seen the film, I urge you to do so, and I challenge you not to be chilled by Ian McKellen’s absolutely convincing performance of smouldering menace.
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