Apt Pupil

Apt Pupil (1998)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Brad Renfro, Ian McKellen
Extras: Theatrical Trailer, Featurette, Cast & Crew Biographies

Led by the disc’s cover artwork, I was looking at "Apt Pupil" without paying much attention to the release, expecting yet another superfluous modern teenage horror film. I am still hopeful someone in the marketing departments of Hollywood’s studios will eventually recognize that the currently found uniformity in film packaging just doesn’t really sell the goods. It just makes every film look like a "Scream" rip-off. Nevertheless, after having passed on the disc for a few times, I finally turned it over to read the box copy and incidentally found it quite intriguing. As a result I decided to view the movie to see if it lends itself to a review, and boy, was I glad I did so, because Columbia TriStar Home Video’s "Apt Pupil" turned out to be pretty thrilling drama with a chilling edge.

Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) is a 16 year old honor student with a fascination for history. While he is working through material about the Nazi Holocaust during the second World War, he recognizes an old man living in his hometown. He is a hunted Nazi, former concentration camp commander Kurt Dussander. With a new identity, Dussander had escaped to the US after the war, and is now living a solitary live as Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), while the world is still looking for him to put him on trial for the horrendous murders he committed during the war.

Instead of informing authorities, the adolescent student approaches the old man and pressurizes him with his knowledge about the past. With morbid curiosity and honestly interested in what happened in these death camps, he forces the man recollect his memories, to dig up all the stories he could remember. Blackmailed and trapped, the old man reveals his memories, but the newfound knowledge tears at the boy. He is not able to deal with the horror he is hearing about. He is going through some kind of transformation himself, becoming increasingly confrontational and aggressive. Compelled by the power he seems to have over the old man, he forces him deeper and deeper into the past. But what the innocent teenager hasn’t figured out yet, is that the German fugitive is playing a dangerous psychological game with him.

The film is based upon a short story by Stephen King and creates a quite intriguing setting by having two worlds collide. The innocence of the adolescent boy clashes with the ultimate evil of recent history. The clever placement in a quite and peaceful suburban setting adds additional tension to the story. The horror pours out in the place where you’d least expect it, and this is clearly one of King’s talents. Although you should think the story holds horror enough, the filmmakers have unfortunately added some quite unnecessary elements to add cheap shock value to the film.

"Apt Pupil" is nevertheless a good film and the only real complaint I could have is that it is portraying the unscrupulous Nazi too sympathetic with little remorse. Nonetheless, as he slowly pulls the covers from the horrors of the past, we know that there is something very dark and evil inside him, that soon not even the boy wants to be associated with any more. I think the message is brought home best in the hospital scene towards the end of the movie, when a former death camp prisoner recognizes the Nazi and collapses in the arms of a nurse. Ian McKellen’s play is restraint, yet menacing at times and he creates a deliberate character, as you would expect someone to be who has been hiding from his own past for the better part of his life. He has a commanding on-screen presence and rules the film. Brad Renfro is also portraying the self-complacent attitude of teenagers, with an edge of invinciblity quite well, until he finds out the hard way that he is no match for the war criminal. Sadly the crippling and sobering effect this experience has on him seems to wear off very quickly. The boy turns into an even more self-complacent teenager with no morale when everything is over, a note in the film’s closing that left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

Columbia TriStar Home Video has now released "Apt Pupil" on DVD and it is another entry in their fabulous line of releases. The disc contains two absolutely flawless transfers of the best quality. One of them is an <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> transfer in the film’s original aspect ratio 2.35:1, while the other one is a heavily cropped <$PS,pan & scan> version. Although the <$PS,fullscreen> version is well done, it truly breaks the film’s well arranged photography and makes the film’s detailed production design a redundancy.
The picture is sharp and well defined, although never harsh. The film’s lighting settings are usually kept very warm to increase the horror in the cold-lit revealing scenes. The disc reproduces the films strong cinematography with an image quality that is absolutely immaculate. There is no <$pixelation,pixelation> or other compression artifacts evident in the transfer and colors are very strong and natural throughout. The disc has a very good black level reproduction and maintains all the details in the shadows and dark interior shots. Like most of Columbia Tristar’s releases, this disc reveals a top of the line transfer that is impressively vivid and has a very three-dimensional quality.

The same is true for the disc’s audio tracks. The disc contains a very active <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> English language soundtrack as well as a <$DS,Dolby Surround> soundtrack that is also in English. The Dolby Digital soundtrack is surprisingly aggressive at times making good use of the split surrounds with directional effects. Especially the nerve-wrecking clusters of the orchestral soundtrack are mixed in an extremely efficient way using the surround channels. Both soundtracks have a very good bass extension below 25 Hz, giving the soundtrack quite a bit of punch. Unfortunately the disc contains only English subtitles. French and Spanish language support is sorely missing from this release for some reason.

Intrigued by the story I soon found myself captivated by the movie and the very natural acting of the film. The script is well paced and holds some exciting twists for the viewer. All the way until the end it is almost impossible to tell what will happen, especially once it becomes obvious that the experienced Denker – which by the way is German for "Thinker" – takes charge and starts controlling the unwitting teenager, pulling him in his devious game. If you want to see a solid and thrilling drama about internal conflicts and multi-layered personalities with a truly chilling note and the power to surprise, you have to give "Apt Pupil" a look. It is a captivating film and an impeccable disc.