In 1982, having rewritten the history of horror, Stephen King turned his attention to the ultimate bogeymen: Hitler's SS. A novella called Apt Pupil imagined the intellectual and psychological pas de deux of a former SS agent hiding out in a Southern California suburb and the teenage boy who discovers his true identity. Instead of turning the war criminal in, the boy blackmails him into telling his story--"everything they're afraid to tell us in school," the boy demands. Ultimately, the stories are a history lesson in the banality of evil: "A door had been opened and couldn't be shut," the old German says. But the young American is, of course, fascinated. Goose steps give him goose bumps. And, over time, schadenfreude turns into something much worse. The boy finally wants to inflict pain.
As someone who once had my own fascination with the Holocaust--who didn't?--I can hardly criticize King for exploiting what seems like natural curiosity. And yet there's something creepy about the novella, and something creepy about Bryan Singer's movie version, which stars Ian McKellen as the teacher, Brad Renfro as the student. The Holocaust just doesn't work as a boy's-adventure thriller device. (Perhaps if the movie were more psychologically probing?) Coughing up phlegm and wheezing like an old accordion, McKellen tries not to condescend to the role, but the role condescends to him. It's pure pulp. Singer, who built such an intricate puzzle in his first movie, The Usual Suspects, has almost too easy a time of it in Apt Pupil. There are ultimately only two pieces to this puzzle, and they both snap right into place.