I have always regarded Apt Pupil as one of Stephen King's greatest and most compelling pieces of fiction. The film adaptation was a long time coming; years ago, a version starring Ricky Schroeder as Todd Bowden was stopped just as production began, and rumors and speculations about a possible movie frittered around for years-until 1998. While this movie is not quite as powerful as King's novella and substitutes a brand new conclusion to the story, it is still an incredible exploration of evil. Brad Renfro is effective as the disturbingly curious Todd, but it is Ian McKellen's superlative performance as Dussander/Danker that makes this movie an unforgettable psychological thriller. I also like to pay tribute to animals who contribute their talents to films without even a mention in the credits. There is a cat that appears in one powerful scene of this movie, conveying vivid emotions of curiosity, helplessness, and fear before delivering a truly frenzied, physically impressive, action-packed performance of high caliber indeed.
Todd Bowden is an intelligent, fairly normal teenager whose interest in Nazi Germany mutates into a dangerous obsession when he locates and identifies a Nazi war criminal living in his own neighborhood. Confronting the old man, he convinces him to admit who he is, promising him that he will tell no one his secret as long as Dussander does one thing for him. Todd wants to know everything about the Holocaust, what Dussander did, how he did it, how he felt, etc. A very strange bond develops between this odd couple, each character holding information that could destroy the other's very world, each seeking to gain the upper hand; it is a power struggle between two ruthlessly cunning individuals. As time goes on, both Dussander and Todd begin to change, affected by the evil that is their constant topic of conversation. The tension builds up throughout the film, culminating in a very satisfying conclusion (although I still prefer King's original conclusion).
This is not a horror movie so much as a movie about horror and, in particular, obsession. There are some disturbing events in the movie, and one has to question which character is more evil than the other. It is difficult to really like either leading character, but one is intensely interested in the final outcome that must inevitably come; true evil can be hidden only so long. When I first learned of this movie's release, I was thrilled to finally see the story brought to life, yet the movie seemed to come and go with little fanfare. This is one of the best Stephen King adaptations out there, and I feel this movie deserves much more attention and acclaim than it has received. The message of Apt Pupil speaks to everyone, not just horror fans, providing a very real warning about the dangers of obsession. Evil can be borne anywhere, even in the heart of Middle America.