“This concludes our week on the holocaust.”
When I was a little boy, I loved Dennis the Menace and, apparently, so did Bryan Singer. Apt Pupil (1998) recreates Dennis the Menace, only set in 1984 and Dennis is Brad Renfro (RIP) and Mr. Wilson the homosexual Nazi who lives next door.
Horror movies have always examined the darker side of the human experience, holding a mirror up to society and our fears. When our nation was obsessed with communism, the horror of that period focused on aliens and pod people taking over our collective consciousness. After Dawn of the Dead, it’s impossible to see zombies as anything but a metaphor for our mindless consumerism. When hippies like the Manson family threatened the security of our homes, the horror evolved into slasher films of the 1970s (Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper exploited this best with Last House on the Left and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, respectively). The female protagonists (“final girl”) of these slasher films echoed the feminist movement; woman surviving and thriving in a world of abuse and sexual violation. Yet, despite all that horror has been able to touch upon, there have been a few subjects that have been conspicuously verboten. Specifically, the horror of the Holocaust.
Apt Pupil sets out to examine the holocaust as well its social and emotional ramifications that were felt a full 40years later. Except something gets in the way of the narrative…Apt Pupil is really gay.
Brad Renfro plays a boy who has no interest in dating girls because he only cares about the Holocaust. Brad would have been a brilliant documentarian for the Shoah Foundation if he weren't so darned sadomasochistic! This sixteen year old boy takes it upon himself to conduct a yearlong series of interviews with his elderly, seemingly retired-Nazi neighbor. Brad's interest, however, is not out of empathy. He is almost gleeful being regaled with stories of Jewish corpses and suffering. But the roleplay is not at all one sided in this bizarre little film (adapted from a 1982 Stephen King novella); the Nazi next door has just as much power in this game. When Brad goes so far as making Ian wear his old S.S. uniform, Ian one-ups him by going off and masturbating in it! Apt Pupil forces us to ask ourselves who is more evil - the man who oversaw the death of thousands or the boy who fetishizes him. They are two peas in a pod, these two. Ian is soon tutoring Brad in his studies, both academic and personal. Things get a bit too intense between them. Brad takes a break, goes back to school, starts kissing a girl. He seems to be on the mend until he's drawn back Ian like a moth to an pedophilic flame. Evil ensues.
"Oh, my dear boy, don't you see? We are fucking each other."
Why is Brad so fixated on Ian? How can so much evil come from a boy brought up with money and education in an all American suburb? How can one feel no sympathy for being the cause of death and pain to thousands? None of these questions are answered in this film because none of these questions are answered in real life. Apt Pupil, while much more psychological than physically violent, is as much a horror film as any Saw movie. Before he got sidetracked with bloated, big budget studio movies and before he was flanked by teenage boys, Bryan Singer was an amazing filmmaker! With a much simpler premise than The Usual Suspects, Singer is able to put all his focus on the film making here. It's slickly edited and beautifully shot - every frame looks like something out of a comic book! A film that demands multiple viewings, Apt Pupil is contextually dense, dealing with issues of dominance and submission, masculine and feminine, and good and evil. What a man is capable of doing to another man can be terrifying and Apt Pupil explores this without ever pandering or reaching for the lowest common denominator.
(Horror Nerd Alert: Be sure to keep an eye out for Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood 's main gay, Kevin Spiritas as paramedic #1!)