Young Poisoner's Handbook FILM review
Apr 18, 2007, 07:02
YOUNG POISONER'S HANDBOOK directed by Benjamin Ross; 1996, Cinepix Film Properties
My, my—what a tweaking your psyche takes when on a bright, sunny spring afternoon you retreat into the womb of a darkened theater and immerse yourself into the depths of a film this black with humor, horror and satire. I have a tendency to, in part, base my opinion of a film on its staying power; not unlike a stick of gum; if it retains that minty-freshness and I haven't spat it out of my mouth and onto the sidewalk after a good long chew, I know the powers that be were successful in creating the sort of impression they intended. Director Benjamin Ross succeeds in nearly every way. A good deal of this post-cinema chewing over Young Poisoner's... was based on identifying the key to the wonderfully twisted and slipped-from-synch feel of this film and, once identified, applying it to the mental replay of scenes and enjoying the effect repeatedly.
Graham Young was a real-life bane-brewing Brit, whose medical malfeasance put a few folks on (the wrong side of) the road to eternity in the 1970s. The saucer-eyed junior scientist, played by Hugh O' Connor, tells the story from his point of view and states, in the early moments of the film, his life's work and raison d'Ãªtre which is, no surprise... poison. No slacker he, young Grant goes about this work with a single-minded focus and enormous enthusiasm spending hours pouring over Gray's Anatomy and countless other volumes depicting graphic medical photos of the effects of poison. Graham is given a pharmaceutical notebook as a gift from a local pharmacist and steadfastly with notebook in hand and beloved Bunsen at his side, begins a long career of politely poisoning by means of toxin-laden sandwiches, chocolates, tea, and cake.
Fiercely intelligent and inquisitive, Graham has, naturally, little enthusiasm for whiling away the hours conventionally—watching “Dickie Boone” on the telly with his family just doesn't cut it—and submits that while his home life was “a stale affair,” he took advantage of every opportunity available while there to carry out his research. Opportunities ranged from nicking his older sister's cosmetics in order to examine their chemical compounds, to work on a grander scale—the slow poisoning of his step-mother; the deed which would lead to his first incarceration. At the onsetÂ of her “tummy wobbles” the family physician places Graham in charge of administering his mother her medicine, providing him with an ideal opportunity to carry out his research. Young's victims, beginning with his step-mother, die in an agonizing manner. The deaths are slow in their progression beginning with excruciating pain and violent episodes of vomiting. When the victims are in the final throes of the poison's effects (which, I believe was thallium), hair drops from their heads faster than you can say “Rogaine.”
In his words taken from his written accounts which he eventually left for posterity in the form of his “Young Poisoner's Handbook,” Graham claims his actions to be neither the indirect result of his animosity for his family, although numerous references to unjust punishments and treatment are made and there are certainly reasons for animosity—particularly for his step-mother who seems to dispense the majority of punishments (such as the destruction of his beloved chemistry set). Graham never expresses any feelings regarding his crimes in his narration aside from his absolute need to carry out his “life's work” and to attend to it with absolute perfection. This becomes the really interesting aspect of this film because Ross subtly extends this message in both his writing and direction and O' Connor's acting is so very good; when the film is over and Graham's motives or emotions are considered, the viewer comes up empty-handed. There is an utter lack of apology or betrayal of character in this portrayal of one of the most infamous criminals of Britain in the 1970s. There is so very little given the viewer to support any theory or pop-psycho-analysis for Graham Young's crimes other than what Graham, from his point of view, gives us that it becomes impossible for the viewer to pick apart the mind of the “monster”—it would be like giving a Rorschach test to Helen Keller.
Significantly, Young is so far removed from conventional social structure that he appears relatively untouched by the majority of existent contemporary culture around him. He appears to float through his world like a disembodied brain bobbing in a glass jar of formaldehyde. Ross nicely contrasts Young's ambivalence or obliviousness with heinous jolts of cultural backdrops (primarily music and fashion) which serve to strengthen the character's credibility all the more.
Years later (I found these “years” to be a somewhat tedious part of the film) when Graham is pronounced “cured” by a new-thinking asylum psychiatrist, he is placed in a job at a camera lens manufacturing lab where his past career as a poisoner is kept confidential by a law designed to protect the rehabilitated. Here he politely assists in dispensing the morning tea in addition to his regular duties and, while a few co-workers suspect that there might be “something queer” about our hero, they can't quite put their collective finger on it and are resigned to accept him as one of the gang. He is not able to maintain his rehabilitated status for long, however, upon the discovery of bottles of his beloved poison of choice in the lens lab, and the tea cup conveniently becomes host to more than Earl Grey and cream. Once again, the viewer is tossed between the desire to analyze Graham's true motives for his crimes and accepting what “he” allows us know. When co-workers begin to show effects of the poison, everyone suspects a virus as the cause, and Young hilariously follows up on his experiments by asking very pointed questions about symptoms—whether his victims are “feeling worse today than yesterday” and in one case asking a co-worker to describe exactly how he is feeling while the guy is standing over a sink puking. His purpose is to be able to annotate his wall chart at home graphing the physical effects of the poison on each individual, with the proper explanatory notes and symbols (expect a job opening at the lab if, for example, a name is followed by the drawing of a coffin). It is not that Graham is unsympathetic towards his victims, he actually maintains a peculiar sort of sweetness throughout the proceedings. His reaction to the plight of his victims, his “experiments,” is not unlike that of a scientist's detached response to the lab animal he is torturing—sympathetic and maybe a little sad but overwhelmingly professional, observant and clinical.
This film could have been exceedingly gloomy and macabre had there not been an overt sense of innocence and satiric humor throughout and it is difficult to dislike Young for the carnage he leaves in his wake. Benjamin Ross seems to get everything right in this, his first feature film. Above all else, Young Poisoner's HandbookÂ is delightfully antisocial in its theme and rife with the very best kind of comedy—the kind you are not supposed to find funny. [the DVD edition of this film was released finally in 2005 by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment]