Taking of horror: Bride of Chucky goes camp, Apt Pupil forces terror

The popularity of the Scream movies has turned out to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, their success has allowed a new wave of horror movies to fill our theaters. The downside is that most of these have tended to be Scream ripoffs, meaning that they’re filled with good-looking teenage or twenty-something actors, loaded with inside jokes, and more concerned with providing a good time than with actually scaring audiences. The serious horror movies that sprouted in the seventies and early eighties have all but disappeared, replaced by mere thrill rides for youthful audiences.

Bride of Chucky is definitely part of this wave of horror movies, but at least it offers something a little different from, say, Disturbing Behavior or Urban Legend. Here we have a movie that manages to make fun, in a slight way, of its target audience and still be quite entertaining.

Chucky, voiced by character actor Brad Dourif, is the villain/ star of three previous Child’s Play movies. The original, made in 1988, is okay but nothing great. Its two sequels were quite crappy, full of nothing but mindless carnage. Bride of Chucky, on the other hand, is fully aware of the sheer ridiculousness of its premise: a serial killer, transported into the body of a toy doll, who roams around wreaking havoc. As if this wasn’t enough, Bride of Chucky provides a female counterpart, a doll named Tiffany, voiced by Jennifer Tilly. Chucky looks and sounds strangely like Jack Nicholson; Tiffany looks like a giant, slutty Barbie.

The most amusing parts of the movie are the conversations between Chucky and Tiffany as they consider the vagaries of life as plastic dolls, and plot to kill anyone who annoys them. Keep in mind that these wonderful dialogues are between two puppets and you’ll have a good idea of the mentality of this movie.

Besides these two plastic stars the movie also features two equally artificial characters, the standard attractive, bland horror-movie characters. If you’re like me, you get pretty sick of these Melrose Place clones, fretting about their melodramatic love lives as their hair looks terrific. What’s nice about Bride of Chucky is the way these characters are mocked by the mere presence of Chucky and Tiffany, who serve as dark twins to the bland youngsters, killing anyone who tries to get in the way of their soap-opera love.

In a way, Bride of Chucky is actually a rather clever farce, as bodies keep turning up, but nobody can figure out who’s killing them, because who’s going to blame a couple of dolls? Of course, in the end the plot is pointless and there’s no character development, but Bride of Chucky definitely provides ninety minutes of fun. As long as you remember that the only sex in the movie is weird plastic doll sex, you’ll do just fine.

Apt Pupil, on the other hand, provides fewer laughs but only slightly more horror. This is the new movie from Bryan Singer, director of The Usual Suspects, based on yet another story by Stephen King. The original story is one of King’s best, found in the collection Different Seasons. It describes the fall from innocence of one Todd Bowden, an ordinary teenager who becomes curious about the Holocaust when he discovers that an old man in his town is a Nazi fugitive. The twisted relationship between the old man, reliving his past atrocities, and the increasingly psychotic young boy is unique and compelling. King’s story ultimately seems to transcend the Nazi experience, exploring the very nature of human evil and insanity.

Unfortunately, Apt Pupil the movie is a rather diminished version of Apt Pupil the story. All the elements are there, but without the necessary intensity. The two stars are Brad Renfro (from The Client) as Todd Bowden, joined by Sir Ian McKellen as the aging Nazi. In terms of monstrosity young Renfro is nothing compared with McKellen, who has played a Nazi before, most notably in his 1995 version of Richard III. In large part, however, the movie rests on Renfro’s shoulders as we watch him transform from an ordinary kid into a dangerous monster. His Todd Bowden isn’t bad or unbelieveable, but he never sinks to the same lows of depravity and psychosis present in the original story.

Perhaps it’s the fault of the screenplay that the film isn’t more powerful, written by first-time writer Brandon Boyce, an old associate of director Singer. The screenplay compresses several brutal murders into a single one and almost ignores Todd’s various sexual complications, instead choosing to strongly emphasize a homosexual subtext.

The Usual Suspects won an Oscar for its screenplay, but the real strength of that movie was Singer’s direction, working within the story’s structure. Here, he again provides an interesting, stylized look at some interestingly twisted characters. However, as such movies as Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice have shown, the true horror of Nazism isn’t that those involved were monsters; it’s that they were ordinary, boring people. In this way, Singer’s stylized direction ultimately serves to diminish the terror he meant to highlight.

Of course, if you haven’t read Stephen King’s Apt Pupil, little of this might matter to you. From that perspective, the story is pretty engrossing, and director Singer does a decent job plunging his audience into the characters’ increasingly mad world. I don’t want to give the ending away, but it has been changed from the original story, as if Singer and his screenwriter decided they could do better. Like the whole movie, it’s a decent try, and fairly interesting, but ultimately not as powerful as it could have been.