(Air Date: Week Of 3/6/96)
Americans like their movie sociopaths to drive fast, talk loud and shoot big guns. Not the English, though--Hitchcock and his descendants favor more genteel crackpots. Continuing that fine tradition, you're bound to like Graham Young, the real-life teenage murderer whose story provides the basis for "The Young Poisoner's Handbook." A sly and ambitious first feature from English director Benjamin Ross, "The Young Poisoner's Handbook" mixes black comedy, social satire and true crime in an enjoyably congealed film.
The film's stellar accomplishment is the smooth way it seesaws your sympathies for and against Graham. He's just 14 when the film opens in 1961, and not a bad sort. He doesn't have a lot of friends or social skills, but he is utterly bonkers for chemistry. His boring, ugly family is a bit of a pain, so who can blame Graham for dosing his stepmother with antimony? He's such a darn bright kid but he does seem devoid of compassion, which isn't a particularly good sign.
Actually, Graham is developing into a scary guy who likes to experiment on people. You start hoping they get him off the street soon and in due course Graham is caught, tried and institutionalized for killing his stepmum.
He's befriended in the mental hospital by a shrink who sets out to cure the brilliant but deranged youth. You're not sure whether you want Graham cured or not, but after several years he is indeed, supposedly, a new man and wins his parole. Once he's back on the streets, you're definitely rooting for his assimilation into the workaday world. Does Graham live a humdrum but harmless middle-class existence, or does he rediscover the dark power of highly toxic liquids and acute human suffering? I ain't telling.
The real Graham Young was a sadist and a racist with no redeeming social value. Those traits have been downplayed in "The Young Poisoner's Handbook," which makes for a more ambiguous, more interesting movie. And since the evil takes on an absurd rather than a cruel tone, you can laugh a bit more freely at the bizarreness of straight English society.
A visually inventive film with a decidedly jaundiced view of human nature, "The Young Poisoner's Handbook" offers the most ominous beverage since "Suspicion." Of course, that may not be everybody's cup of tea.
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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