Behold! Creepy puppets. Nazi spies. Suicide, murder, psychics. And so much more.
Apt Pupil. 1998. Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by Brandon Boyce; based on the novella by Stephen King from the collection Different Seasons.
Starring Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro, Joshua Jackson, Mickey Cottrell, Michael Reid MacKay, Ann Dowd, Bruce Davison, James Karen, Marjorie Lovett, David Cooley, Blake Anthony Tibbetts, Heather McComb, Katherine Malone, Grace Sinden, & David Schwimmer. Canal+/Phoenix Pictures/Bad Hat Harry Productions.
Rated 14A. 111 minutes.
Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of Bryan Singer’s directing. Not that he’s bad. There’s something about his style that doesn’t always attract me. I’ve not seen his feature debut, though The Usual Suspects is a great film; slightly overrated, but great nonetheless. Sometimes I feel like Singer is a bit too focused on the look of things and forgets there needs to be proper substance.
Apt Pupil suffers partly because of that disease. In a quest to get the atmosphere and the mood correctly dark, as well as unsettling, Singer works off the adapted screenplay from Brandon Boyce, which is the first problem. The original novella by Stephen King is an intense, tight little tale that unwinds into an absolute massacre, both figuratively and literally. Boyce does the source material a disservice by both watering down some of the more disturbing aspects, replacing that with weak storytelling. However, resting the weight of the movie on the shoulders of Ian McKellen and the 14-year-old Brad Renfro was a wise casting choice that ultimately transcends what mistakes were made in the writing. The film is nowhere near perfect, definitely not close to being as good the novella. Yet I dig it. With an eerie mood and a feeling of pure evil hovering around every last frame, Apt Pupil is a wonderful character study of two men at highly different points in their life: one is a former Nazi Sturmbannführer that worked in the concentration camps during World War II named Kurt Dussander (Ian McKellen), now living in California as Arthur Denker and hiding his identity nearing the end of his life; the other, a young high school student named Todd Bowden (Brad Renfro) on the verge of starting his life, ready to graduate, and harbouring a darkness within that desperately seems to want to get out.
The juxtaposed scene of Dussander at dinner with everybody then hearing his various conversations playing through Todd’s head is perfect. First of all we see how the duality of these type of men, former Nazis, is part of their terror. Dussander moved from a life of hideous war crimes to one of a quiet neighbourhood old man, the kind who can sit with normal people and talk with them while leaving that other life somewhere behind him.
Later on, Dussander starts to fall back into his old ways. This is where we see that whereas he’s able to hide his true identity so well there’s still only a very thin skin holding it inside. It all begins when Todd makes him put the SS costume on. Immediately we see the regression into that brainwashed state of marching, saluting, and this signals a change. Not long after Dussander tries to put a cat in his oven, though isn’t successful. Literally moving back to the ways of the concentration camp. There’s also a parallel between Dussander, his past, and the sinister intent of Todd. He is a little twisted; more so in the novella. But Renfro’s Todd is shown to be sick in his own way.
One of the scenes that gets to me most is when Todd showers at school, then finds himself transported to the showers of Auschwitz, the frail and skinny bodies standing around him. There’s a very King feel here. Ripped straight from the pages of his writing almost. I also think the brief with the cat is great because it shows that lingering feeling in Dussander that wants to start killing again; the fact he attempts to put it in an oven is scarily perfect. I’m also a huge fan of that last moment set to “Das Ist Berlin” (performed by Liane Augustin & The Boheme Bar Trio) – without spoiling anything overtly there’s this powerful use of the look in Dussander’s eyes, the editing with Todd and his guidance counsellor/the basketball rim (that gives a feeling of sport; in that the young kid sees his actions as a form of play). That whole finishing scene really puts a cap on the visual elements, as one of the better executed sequences overall.
This brings me to my biggest problem: the writing. I know the original novella is risky, it’s a touchy story to try adapting closely. But I can’t help feeling that to be honest to the prevalent themes you’ve really got to keep many of the elements King put into the plot. For instance – SPOILERS FOR BOOK READERS AHEAD! – instead of Dussander forcing Todd into the basement where the kid is in turn forced to kill the vagrant (played fabulously by Elias Koteas), in the story Todd kills homeless vagrants, and the story takes place over about four years, so there’s this really monstrous side to the kid that comes out even more than in this screenplay. Most of all it’s the brutality we’re missing. In a story already tackling the Holocaust and the obsession many develop with it, I’m not sure why Boyce didn’t try to retain a few of the more intense, savage pieces. I suppose because King doesn’t do much, first or last, to make Todd Bowden too sympathetic. The film goes too hard at trying to humanise both men, slightly, instead of showing the monster within each of them, one that grows in a symbiotic sense as Todd and Dussander go on similar yet separate paths.
This film is due for a remake by a writer and director willing to go the full way. Singer’s effort captures a fascinating atmosphere, it contains two powerful performances that are worth EVERY second and every penny. Unfortunately there’s a lot lacking in comparison to what is a pleasantly shocking story by the master of horror, Mr. King. I’m not always a stickler for screenwriters keeping dead on with a novel or other source material. In this case the whole film would have been better served by circling more closely the original intentions of the author.
Day of Wrath. 1943. Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Screenplay by Dreyer, Pol Knudsen, & Mogens Skot-Hansen; based on the play Anne Pedersdotter by Hans Wiers-Jenssen.
Starring Thorkild Roose, Lisbeth Movin, Sigrid Neiiendam, Preben Lerdorff Rye, & Albert Hoeberg. Palladium Productions.
Not Rated. 97 minutes.
History allows us to look back on films and compare them to the times in which they’re made. When there’s a war or a big event happening, people don’t necessarily have the chance – not all of them anyways – to step back from it all and admire the artists creating during times of oppression and turmoil. In 1943, Carl Th. Dreyer made Day of Wrath, and though likely intending it to carry a message more contemporary than its plot, audiences didn’t receive so well. Not only is it a slow paced film, the darkness of the witch hunts and the terrible persecution of so many women for supposedly being in league with the devil makes for heavy viewing. All the same, the witches become a direct parallel to the Jewish people being persecuted at the time of filming under Nazi rule. Of course Dreyer himself denies the film is about the Nazis. Yet artistic intent is not everything. As the witches stand in for the Jews, morbidly fitting is the element of fire existing parallel between the two, this film takes on an even more grim tone than already exists. But even without assuming Dreyer uses the witch hunts as a symbolic way of talking about the Nazis, the Holocaust, Day of Wrath is beautiful as it is difficult, and the importance of this film cannot be undone regardless of interpretation. It only helps cement Dreyer as a significantly powerful filmmaker in the history of moving pictures.
The cinematography is steady, often using long takes. For an early ’40s film, Day of Wrath draws us into the story and its characters almost simply by forcing us to spend so much time in their space. Many would come to identify this technique with Dreyer as part of his style in subsequent works. Coupled with that, the actors never go into overly melodramatic performance. This is perhaps one of the hallmarks of his directorial style. In a time where overacting was most definitely common, in part due to the expressiveness previously needed in the solely silent picture era, Dreyer’s actors manage to express restraint. Their abilities make the characters much more believable. Instead of feeling like a stage play (based on a play called Anne Pedersdotter by Norwegian playwright Hans Wiers-Jenssen in turn based on the woman of the same name), despite well blocked scenes, the film plays out in a more reality driven fashion. There is certainly melodrama in Dreyer, particularly here. The character of Anne is an embodiment of melodramatic elements, as her personal and sexual stifling comes to represent a whole other aspect than the witch hunt plot element.
The terrifying witch burning early on turns up in a later cult film about similar themes, The Witchfinder General, in a scene with a witch strapped to a ladder then dropped into a fire is all but literally ripped from Dreyer. Much more effective here, in my opinion. Especially considering it was 1943. The editing and the timing of that shot is absolutely incredible. Very impressive work all around.
Above Dreyer’s style or anything else it’s the themes here which drive his film. Shadowy and eerie almost constantly, Day of Wrath gets at the fear and intolerance of a society bent on creating the type of citizens it wants, and not being created as what its citizens want/need. The religious cruelty of the plot is a smothering, suffocating force, which is symbolic of the religiously driven (albeit maniacally so) rhetoric and belief of the Nazi Party during the time this film was made.
At face value, though, we can also interpret Dreyer’s movie as one with aims of examining early feminism. The danger a man faces here is much less corporeal, more of the spirit and to do with shame. Whereas a woman is not only subject to shame, she is also in physical harm’s way, often to a fatal point. And ultimately that burning of witches, as well as the final burning, or expected burning, of Anne herself, is way of denying and literally cauterizing the wounds of the male ego. In those final moments after Anne is betrayed totally by Martin, the hypocrisy of the witch hunt is at its most chauvinistic.
The performance of Lisbeth Movin is a knockout. She gets more intense as the film gets going. There are such affecting looks on her face, as the camera captures her perfectly drenched in shadow, half covered by darkness in the flickers of candles, looking both innocent and sinister at once. One reason why the film works is because she offers up such a dual feeling role that makes Anne epitomize the way witches were perceived. Even the audience at times can’t be sure of her attitude, as Movin keeps people guessing. It is an emotional performance that makes the romantic elements, and the briefly sexual elements, work so well. The long takes Dreyer uses are suited to her, as she lets us become part of the character’s world and allows our eyes a peek into her psychology.
While Vampyr is my favourite of Dreyer’s films, Day of Wrath is a loaded bit of cinema that on the surface explores the jaded days of witch hunts, while plumbing the depths underneath and serving as the direct parallel for Nazi power and the plight of Jewish people during the latter days of World War II. The cinematography and style is what goes on to be known as recognizable Dreyer. Here, it takes the audience into a repressed and quiet space where the intolerance of religion, all the fear it creates boils up into a mess of forbidden love, anger, and so much more.
Dreyer is a titan of cinema. If you’re at all serious about your love of film he is someone that absolutely needs to be explored. So if you dig this, keep digging. He has a lot of wonderful work and showed how possible it was to make engaging, exciting, unique cinema even during the early decades of the industry.
Frankenstein’s Army. 2013. Directed by Richard Raaphorst. Screenplay by Miguel Tejada-Flores & Chris W. Mitchell from a story by Tejada-Flores & Raaphorst.
Starring Robert Gwilym, Hon Ping Tang, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Joshua Sasse, Mark Stevenson, Andrei Zayats, Karel Roden, Klaus Lucas, Cristina Cataline, Jan de Lukowicz, & Zdenek Barinka. MDI Media Group/Dark Sky Films/Pellicola/XYZ Films/Sirena Film/Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic/The Czech Film Industry Support Programme.
Rated R. 84 minutes.
★★★★ There are no end to people sick of the found footage sub-genre, no matter how it’s used or in what genre it gets repurposed. I’m not one of them, though. For me, if a film can find a way to use found footage that’s at least a little fresh, unique in some way, then I’m really able to get into it. Frankenstein’s Army chooses to not only mash-up the horror and war genres, it further throws in some Mary Shelley DNA with a found footage setup. Honestly, even if it’s not your cup of tea in the end, this is at the very least an idea worth giving a chance.
The film has a lot of creepy things going for it, as well as the fact so much of everything is done practically, using long takes that lend themselves to the found footage format. Director Richard Raaphorst tells an interesting story with an incredibly terrifying plot that never quits. While not everything works all of the time, Frankenstein’s Army is fairly well acted, and the monsters – oh, the monsters! Above all, the horrifying creatures are exactly one of the major reasons why this is effective. Plus, the feeling of a movie trying hard to do some unique monster work, especially through practical effects, is something we’re not often seeing these days. With a few things that could’ve been improved most of the movie is entertaining, as well as dark and definitely disturbing.
On orders from Josef Stalin himself, near the end of World War II a group of Russian soldiers are sent on a mission for the Fatherland. Stalin specifically requests they film everything, so that it might make Russia proud. The troop end up hearing of a number of other soldiers in need of help. When the come across the caretaker of a church, the Russians are led into a terrifying house of horrors; a place where strange creatures lurk in every corner. But what starts as merely an isolated incidents devolves into the soldiers pushing through a massive German factory filled with awful monsters, pieced together from living flesh and metal, pieces of machinery, even propellers. When they discover the caretaker is really Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (Karel Roden), descendant of the original Dr. Frankenstein, the group of soldiers descend into what may as well be Hell.
As the nastiness piles up, none of them are sure they’ll survive until the war is over – in fact, it’s just begun.
After 4,200+ films and counting, a good chunk of those horror, I tend to believe not a whole lot truly scares me. Although, every so often there are things that creep me out, give me a few chills. I must say, there are a couple moments here where I found a creep or two. One scene is after Dmitri (Alexander Mercury) gets tossed down a chute by his fellow soldier, then a creature comes in and grabs a dead body nearby – right after, as Dmitri turns the camera I found that, plus several moments afterwards fairly unsettling. It didn’t shock me to the core, but the way it’s filmed is unsettling. Then once Dmitri goes further and ends up in an office, finding a teddy bear with a woman’s head sewn onto it, the whole thing goes from unsettling to disturbing (check the credits; you’ll find out who that woman-teddy bear is). I love this whole section because then we start getting into the Frankenstein aspect.
And that’s another big reason why I enjoyed the screenplay. Because Frankenstein adaptations are a dime a dozen, or movies and stories that draw from Mary Shelley, such as ‘modern retellings’ and so on. Yet Frankenstein’s Army takes the legacy of the infamous doctor and extends it so that World War II, the Nazis and all they were up to, gets included. That opens up a whole new aspect to the story because the Nazis were into a lot of things experimentation-wise, from medical experiments to hopeful tries towards making ‘supermen’. The original Dr. Frankenstein may as well have gone on to be a Nazi doctor because his work was out of control as it was, attempting to essentially play God, which his supposed descendant here takes to an entirely new level of disturbed.
Many found footage films suffer from a dearth of proper acting. Here, though, we get a main cast who do a fairly good job carrying the material. In addition, Dr. Viktor Frankenstein is played by the ever fabulous Karel Roden, whose talent gives the film an extra quality in the final 20 minutes. His exuberance is terrific, as Viktor starts out subtle then moves quickly into mania, with each minute getting wilder and wilder. Watching him walk around the factory explaining his process, talking of his family history and more, it is quite a treat. In the most morbid way possible. If it weren’t for the actor playing Dmitri and Roden as Frankenstein this wouldn’t have such an interesting finale. But really, the entire cast does a decent job, aside from the old German man that ends up with the soldiers for a short time, along with a boy (the kid wasn’t so bad). It’s not award-winning acting, however, it does the job. Again, the final half hour is a ton of fun, especially the last 19 minutes or so. Dmitri has to endure watching plenty of terror, a few patches of blood and guts, too. It is a grueling end, but packs a gruesome punch.
I’ve got to give Frankenstein’s Army a 4-star rating. Yes, things could’ve been improved at certain points, perhaps some of the bits with the soldiers would do well with a tightening of the screenplay. But it is still one hell of an entertaining horror, bits and pieces of action thrown in and a heavy splash of science fiction. The genre mash-up, all captured in the found footage sub-genre, is spectacular and whereas some films try to do that then end up with too much this movie keeps its eye on the prize. Because really what it aims to be is a monster flick, a creature feature of sorts. Only the jumping-off point is WWII, Nazis, with that extra spice of Frankenstein stirred in. You can do much worse than this if looking for a weird horror to enjoy, or a found footage film. It at least employs the sub-genre in a different way than most of the ‘lost in the woods yelling’ or ‘trapped in a mental hospital yelling’ found footage efforts out there already. Give it a chance.
If you need dumb, sexified trash, I guess this one is good enough to throw on and make fun of for a while.