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Blu-ray Review: Apt Pupil

Distributor: Umbrella Entertainment

From the novella by acclaimed Horror Master, Stephen King, Apt Pupil is the story of Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro, Sleepers), a brilliant young student who discovers that an old man living in his hometown is actually a wanted Nazi war criminal. To satisfy Todd’s curiosity and earn his silence, Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen, X-Men: Days of Future Past) reveals his secret past… but all too soon it becomes clear that Todd is not the one in control of this twisted psychological game and that if he lives through it, he will learn a very dangerous lesson.

Stephen King has seen more adaptations of his written body of work than any other writer living or dead, except maybe for Bram Stoker, whose novel, Dracula, has been adapted for a literal, accurate, and confirmed figure of ninety bajillion times. As such, among these King adaptations, some are classic, some are decent, and some are best forgotten. His 1982 four-novella collection, Different Seasons, contained the original stories that would later be adapted into STAND BY ME, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and then APT PUPIL. The fourth story, THE BREATHING METHOD, is due out next year under the direction of SINISTER’s Scott Derrickson, so the Different Seasons adaptation game is looking like a clean sweep. Not bad for one book. (The jealous author in me weeps bitterly.)

Until Derrickson’s adaptation sees release, APT PUPIL remains the dark horse adaptation of the book. Having been released to mixed-to-positive reviews back in 1999, and directed by a post-USUAL SUSPECTS Bryan Singer (the X-MEN series, VALKYRIE, recent news headlines), APT PUPIL has always remained just under the radar in the King world. Headlined by Brad Renfro (who died at the age of 25 in 2008, and whose death was overshadowed by the passing of Heath Ledger one week later), APT PUPIL presents a young, well-to-do high school student and all-around sociopath Todd Bowden, who deduces that an elderly member of his community, Arthur Denker (Ian McKellen), is a former Nazi living in hiding under an alias. Bowden, fascinated with Nazi atrocities (or perhaps just atrocity in general), first blackmails Denker before cautiously befriending him, wanting nothing more than to hear all of Denker’s vile holocaust stories. And Denker, at first backed into a corner, slowly begins to spin the arrangement to his advantage, until the two get to a point where both are manipulating each other. As such, only one will likely walk away.

As can be expected by a King work, APT PUPIL is very dark – not in terms of gory visuals, but more its tone and its subject matter. There’s no blacker stain in the world than the atrocities of Nazi Germany during World War 2; even without the grainy black and white photographs of stacked bodies and emaciated figures, the mere discussion of it is still upsetting enough that APT PUPIL presents as a somber and by-design upsetting experience. Singer and screenwriter Brandon Boyce don’t back away from the darkness of the story’s subject matter, although it does update certain aspects, such as its much more explosive finale (to be expected in 1999’s immediate post-Columbine era).
Ian McKellen is absolutely chilling in his role as the runaway Nazi, whose villainous turn almost laughs in the face of his more well-known, and by comparison, lovable, take on the X-MEN series’ Magneto (ironically, a survivor of the holocaust). But in a way, it’s Renfro as Bowden who walks away as the film’s bigger sociopath, and that’s because he wears the façade of a sixteen-year-old kid in a Varsity jacket and has a pretty girlfriend on his arm, who society would dictate has the perfect life, and hence, is no one to worry about. Renfro finds a way through all that and presents an angry, confused, and severely psychotic kid for whom more teachers would write a letter of recommendation than recommend him for psychological counseling. (Sadly, Renfro battled with drug addiction throughout his 20’s, nearly obtaining the lead in FREDDY VS. JASON before a bizarre incident in which he stole a yacht cost him the role.)


APT PUPIL was previously issued on Blu-ray by Image Entertainment in the mid-2000s but went out of print soon after and has languished in limbo ever since. This new edition comes from Australian distributor Umbrella Entertainment, who has been doing solid genre work for the last several years. (They just released the definitive edition of George A. Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD, which I can’t recommend enough.) What makes them an especially valuable distributor is most of their releases have been region free, which means that collectors need not worry about geographical restrictions. For this release, Umbrella seems to have used the same transfer as Image’s, which means that it hails from an older master and doesn’t reflect the kind of HD experience as a modern one. Foreground detail is reasonably impressive, but background textures can sometimes be addled with noise. Overall, the picture is stable with no signs of print damage.


The only audio is a 2.0 stereo track, which is perfectly adequate. Dialogue is clear and rendered, and John Ottman’s score sounds rich and full, neither which contain any distortion.


The only special feature is a vintage making-of documentary that’s appeared on previous Blu-ray and DVD releases.


On the triple tier Stephen King adaptation scale, APT PUPIL rests comfortably in the upper-middle ranks. The lead performances and Singer’s direction are top notch, while the screenplay can sometimes meander, with its neutered ending sacrificing much of the impact of King’s original story. Still, it’s certainly one of the better King adaptations, with immense talent on both sides of the camera. Sadly, it’s also more relevant in the modern climate than it’s ever been before.

APT PUPIL is now on region free Blu-ray from Umbrella Entertainment.


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J. Tonzelli is a writer, film critiquer, and avid Arnold/Van Damme/Bronson enthusiast who resides in rural South Jersey. He is the author of "The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween" and the "Fright Friends Adventure" series, co-authored with Chris Evangelista. He loves abandoned buildings, the supernatural, and films by John Carpenter. You can read some of his short fiction at his website, JTonzelli.com, or objectify him by staring at his tweets: @jtonzelli. He apologizes for all the profanity.