June makes an irreparable, devastating decision: be defiled again, or rise up with violence.
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.
Man Behind the Sun. 1988. Directed by T.F. Mou. Screenplayby Mei Liu, Wen Yuan Mou, & Dun Jing Teng.
Cast: Jianxin Chen, Hsu Gou, Linjie Hao, Haizhe Jin, Tie Long Jin, Yuanrong Jin, Bolin Li, Pengyu Liu, Xuhui Lui, Zhaohua Mei, Zhe Quan ,Jiefu Tian, Gang Wang, Runsheng Wang, Shennin Wang, Jiang Wen, Dai Yao Wu, Guowen Zhang, Yongdong Zhao, & Rongming Zheng. Sil-Metropole Organisation.
Rated R. 95 minutes.
In a quest to try and watch any/all disturbing films out there, good or bad, I’ve heard about Man Behind the Sun (the correct translation, though titled most places as Men Behind the Sun) for many years. At an early age, I saw a clip on a website – possibly eBaum’s, or something similar – though, I never was able to find a copy. Living on an island at the far East Coast of Canada, the horror especially didn’t always find its way to the video stores; many movies as I did get to see, the real cult stuff was that for which I had to wait. So in lieu of actually being able to see this one I dove into the actual history behind Unit 731 – during World War II this particular unit lead by Major General Shiro Ishii committed heinous war crimes testing tactical biological warfare (resulting in small outbreaks of plague and cholera), which includes attacks via airplane on localized areas, later escalating to injecting plague directly into live subjects, among many other atrocious experiments such as infecting Allied POWs with glanders (a disease that primarily affects horses, donkeys, mules), dissecting POWs and other citizens, they even subjected women to rape and forced pregnancies, among too many other hideous things to list.
So straight away, you know Man Behind the Sun is not to be trifled with, neither should you assume it’s not as bad as people say. It is, absolutely. Now I can still sit and watch it, managing to get through. Regardless, this is one of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen in my life. It is brutish, ugly. You’ll think twice about going on. There’s no shame in not making it all the way. However, I have to say that there’s an almost important merit to this piece of cinema. While I do not condone the use of real corpses (both human and animal; the film’s most controversial ‘cat scene’ is actually a practical effect, albeit an impressive one that involves a real cat covered in honey being licked by rats), director T.F. Mou argues that we must try confronting the past, no matter how disgusting, no matter how bad it feels or looks. There’s an exploitative aspect to the entire film, no doubt. Foolish to say otherwise. Although I can’t discount the merit which lies beneath.
If you do venture ahead to watch, please know – only the hardcore horror hounds are likely to handle what they’ll see. That’s no joke. If you’ve got the stomach, hang for a ride.
There’s not a whole lot I have to say about the acting. It isn’t much good, at all. Though there are moments. On the whole this film is all about the hypnotically shocking gamut of realistic horror through which it grinds the viewer.
One scene that’s just downright unsettling is the drinking glass. You’ll know what I’m talking about. I won’t spoil it for those who’ve not yet seen the film. Rest assured, as someone who considers himself a hardened horror movie watcher, this even felt nasty to me. Specifically because the actor doing the drinking from said glass plays the moment so well. A creepy, brief scene. There’s not much good acting from here on in, aside from the young boys watching on under command of the General, as well as some of the victims in the experiments.
Later, the scariest element to so much of the horrific imagery we see is the fact these high-ranking men are training a bunch of young boys, they’re having the fact engrained in them that certain people they deem lower are considered not even people, as fodder for experimentation. Despite the graphic, visceral images, the disturbing part is this brainwashing, and if it’s at all possible this actually makes the nasty bits even nastier.
Maybe the most disturbing to me is the frozen arms of the woman, her reaction. It’s of note that those arms are actual corpse arms. Yes, you got that right. Real, dead, human arms. Only person willing to hold them was the director’s own niece. So they really froze them, she held them. It’s insanity. You always hear people rag on Ruggero Deodato for his filming of the natives killing animals, nobody’s over here worried about the dead bodies Mou used for his horror flick. Good lord. There’s one scene Mou claims is actual autopsy footage of a young boy. Not sure if this is true. If so, I’d hope there was some form of consent in order to use that. But then again, I highly doubt it. Turns out that the autopsy is real: the parents signed over consent to let the autopsy be filmed, and Mou dressed the doctors performing up like they were from the WWII era. There are huge questions about morality concerning whether Mou ought to have made the film this way. Apparently the special effects industry in China at that time did not exist, essentially. So partly he had to resort to what was available, which meant using connections of his with local police to inform him of cadavers matching the descriptions he required. Part of me then wonders if this was necessary. At the same time, was that maybe his aim? In confronting actual atrocities committed in the past, does something sickening like real corpse parts in a film about said atrocities somehow make the realism better? Certainly makes it real. Just not sure if it makes anything better. In the end, I’m conflicted.
Respect must be given to the legitimate practical effects in this movie. Forget the rats and all that controversial stuff. The practical special effects accomplished here are terribly impressive. They’re even able to surprise and disgust someone like myself. For instance, as I wrote this the scene where the guy’s intestine pops out made my eyes go wide. I didn’t get sick or anything, but I mean, it gave me pause. That doesn’t happen often. All I could do was stare a moment, horrified at the scene. They put him in a sort of audio chamber, jam on the high frequency until the guy can’t do anything but lay in pain on the ground, and then BAM – intestine, right out his asshole. I know that sounds cheesy, and rightfully atrocious. It is the latter. Unfortunately, it’s too well executed for me to say it has a cheese factor. The effect is ghastly.
Don’t believe it stops there. So much of runtime is spent in an endurance test as the audience. Rarely do we get time to break from the hideousness and settle our stomachs. Only now and then.
It’s hard for me to give this 3 out of 5 stars by saying the film is good. In terms of technical aspects, some of what Mou did as director works in the name of realism. In other ways, Man Behind the Sun is purely an exploitation flick, a torrid bit of hardcore genre filmmaking. Again, I’m completely conflicted when all is said and done. One side of me thinks what Mou did, in terms of using real corpses and animal parts, is downright despicable. The opposite side insists there’s value in Mou’s confrontation of a dark period in Japanese (and Chinese) history. Somewhere in the middle of the road lies an understanding.
If you want to test your ironclad stomach, do so at your own peril. Like I said, this didn’t make me sick. It did actually make me question, for the first time in 4,200 films: why am I watching this? Could be awhile before I figure out the answer to that one.
If you need dumb, sexified trash, I guess this one is good enough to throw on and make fun of for a while.