EVIL KNOWS NO AGE LIMIT IN `APT PUPIL'.
Stephen King's ``Apt Pupil'' may not be his scariest story, but it's likely his most disturbing.
It's built around the relationship between a bright California high school kid, Todd Bowden, who has a morbid fascination with the Holocaust, and Kurt Dussander, an aged, former concentration camp commandant. When Todd discovers the disguised war criminal living in his pleasant suburb, rather than turn him in the boy blackmails him into sharing his every depraved memory. Then, one day, the old Nazi strikes back ... but by this time, the teen-ager has learned too much.
No ghosts. No werewolves. No uplifting themes like those other stories from King's ``Different Seasons'' collection that were turned into the beloved movies ``Stand by Me'' and ``The Shawshank Redemption.'' Just two thoroughly evil guys talking, mostly, then finally acting on their dreadful impulses.
How do you make a Hollywood movie out of that?
For years, you didn't; the first of several attempts to bring ``Apt Pupil'' to the screen failed more than a decade ago.
But for Bryan Singer, the 32-year-old director who made a big splash last time around with the intricate crime puzzler ``The Usual Suspects,'' it's been a warped dream ever since he first read the story as an adolescent. Now, with substantial changes to King's plot and an unlikely pairing of two very different actors - 59-year-old Shakespearean Sir Ian McKellen and Tennessee teen-ager Brad Renfro (``The Client'') - Singer has done it.
And even though the film tones down the bloodshed and eliminates the racism found in the book, it's every bit as disturbing.
``The idea, the essence, the theme, the relationship, the characters, the cat-and-mouse and the transference of evil were all in the story, and I tried to present them in the picture,'' Singer says. ``The only differences are that the violence, which reads really great in the story, would have been a bit repetitive and dangerously exploitive if you were to try to show it in a movie.
``And I made a conscious effort, also, not to bring up too much Holocaust imagery and stuff like that,'' says Singer, who is Jewish. ``It's not `Schindler's List,' it's not that kind of movie. This movie is not about Nazism or racism, it's about the pervasiveness of evil and corruption.''
Renfro has a slightly different view of the proceedings.
``It's about power and control,'' says the young actor, now 16. ``A lot of people ask, `What makes this boy so evil?' But it's not really like he's seduced by evil. It's more like a playoff, a matchup, a power game in which they're seducing each other.''
Like ``The Usual Suspects' '' Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, ``Pupil'' writer Brandon Boyce is one of Singer's childhood friends from suburban West Windsor, N.J. (actor Ethan Hawke was another, movie-mad neighbor). Like Singer, he saw the movie as an opportunity to examine an abstract concept through specific behavior.
``I believe evil does exist,'' Boyce says. ``It's like, you couldn't write the character of Adolf Hitler. If you're going to tell that story, you're going to have to accept the fact that he is already this way, and this happens to people.
``Really, this is more about the kid being a victim of his own curiosity,'' Boyce adds. ``I think there was always the seed for the way he is inside of him, and it just gets nurtured and perpetuated by this sort of whirlwind with the old man.''
Some kids who were extras in the movie say that they were victims of another kind. According to attorney Martin Rub, suits have been filed on behalf of nine minors (and at least one adult extra) against various individuals and production companies involved with ``Apt Pupil,'' claiming they were pressured into performing nude for a gym shower scene that was filmed at Altadena's Eliot Middle School in April 1997.
After an eight-month investigation of the incident by a sexual-crimes task force made up of local, state and federal investigators, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office determined that there was no cause to file charges. The sequence that appears in the film was reshot in the summer of last year with all-adult extras.
Rub, who represents two of the minors and one adult, claims that ``the report to the DA confirms that the children were forced to strip naked, but they said that there was no criminal intent and that's why they didn't prosecute. They said that it appeared to be a professional film shoot that was intimidating, and that they were in a rush to get the scene shot.
``But children, by law, cannot give their consent on a contract or anything else. To take advantage of children is just a dastardly act.''
Singer disputes the claims.
``They have no merit and nothing happened that day,'' the director says of the lawsuits. ``And that is a fact, from my perspective and the perspective of many people who were there that day - and it also happens to be the District Attorney's opinion after a months-long investigation.
``It's just an unfortunate thing that occurs, I believe, when one is working with a company that has a lot of money. I have never experienced anything like that before, but I've been told by friends who have been in the business a lot longer that I should expect it not to be the last time.''
Singer has his next time lined up: He's slated to direct the big-budget, special-effects extravaganza ``The X-Men,'' based on the popular Marvel comics and cartoon show superheroes. But even with that franchise secured, Singer is understandably concerned about how his hard-to-sell, my-mentor-was-a-Nazi movie is going to be received.
``It's a trick: How do you make a Nazi mass murderer sympathetic?'' the director says. ``Well, you make him an old man, living in seclusion, who becomes victimized by this annoying, pervasive young boy. And he is merely a boy, so by his very physical nature he is attractive and sympathetic.
``But you've got to stop and think: What kind of boy blackmails a Nazi? And by the time you're getting to the film's climax, you're thinking: Wait a minute, he's a mass murderer! That's kind of an interesting game to play, but part of the game is how do you make depraved, unsympathetic characters sympathetic for at least long enough so people at the movie care.''
If you recall the elaborate plot of ``The Usual Suspects,'' cinematic gamesmanship clearly emerges as a major motif in Singer's work.
``I enjoy the ability to deceive an audience,'' he admits. ``There's something exciting about trickery and about pulling the wool over someone's eyes and manipulation. People complain, `That movie was so manipulative!' Well, it might not have been good because you were aware you were being manipulated. But if you can be manipulated by a movie, then the movie was right on.''
At least one observer feels he pulled it off this time.
``Stephen King has seen the movie and embraced it,'' Singer reports. ``He said, `If you had done it just like the book, it would have been a different kind of movie. The wrong kind of movie.' '' A canny student of the marketplace himself, the director knows ``Apt Pupil'' requires the same kind of careful tracking a gifted but troublesome schoolboy needs.
``These kind of strange, dark, twisted movies need all the support they can get,'' Singer says.
Photo: (1--2) Director Bryan Singer, above, somehow had to make the audience sympathetic to an ex-Nazi commandant (Ian McKellen, below) being blackmailed by a neighborhood teen.
(3) Actor Brad Renfro on his young, manipulative character: ``It's not really like he's seduced by evil. It's more like a playoff, a matchup, a power game.''