Picks and Pans Review: Apt Pupil

updated 10/26/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/26/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ian McKellen, Brad Renfro

Never trust a Nazi. So learns the teenage protagonist of Apt Pupil, an honorable but not entirely successful attempt by director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) to make a morally complex horror movie.

Set in 1984, the film begins with its star pupil (Renfro) discovering that an elderly man living in his California town is an escaped Nazi war criminal. Instead of calling the cops, Renfro spends months pumping the man (McKellen) about the horrors of the Holocaust. "I want you to tell me everything they're afraid to tell us in school," he instructs McKellen. Both man and boy find themselves sickly stirred by the memories. Soon the old man is shoving a cat into an oven. The boy is bludgeoning a pigeon. Neither stops there.

Pupil starts off as an absorbing thriller about the nature and seductiveness of evil but, by its end, devolves into a more standard horror film in which evil is simply evil, and corpses pile up. The movie is, after all, based on a 1982 novella by Stephen King, whose credentials as a moral philosopher about Nazism don't exactly rival Hannah Arendt's. The acting, though, is terrific. As the unrepentant German, McKellen is chilling. Playing his eager student, Renfro is, scarily, all too convincing. (R)

Bottom Line: Good try, but the lesson plan could use some tinkering

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