Murder by Numbers

It took a sick mind to find humor -- even of the darkest shade -- in the murderous real-life exploits of Graham Young, a brilliant but twisted young Londoner who, in the early Sixties, conducted lethal toxicological experiments on his family and schoolmates. Fortunately, writer-director Benjamin Ross and his screenwriting collaborator Jeff Rawle brought just the right twisted sensibilities to the task. They spike their film, The Young Poisoner's Handbook, with enough venomous social satire to slay even the most jaded audiences.

Ross and Rawle do not hew to the details of Young's true story, but instead remain loyal to its essence. Graham Young felt far more concern for the scientific consequences of his "work" than he did about the people it directly affected; the filmmakers waste little time trying to get at the origin of this malignant character defect, other than to suggest that it might have been provoked by Young's growing up amid a vapid, insensitive, dysfunctional family. Instead, Ross and Rawle tell their story from Young's point of view, which enables them to pull off the neat trick of making the killer seem normal and everyone else preposterous. Young's descent from mere eccentricity into homicidal madness feels like a natural response to the absurd backdrop of bourgeois British life. You'll find yourself thinking, "Geez, under those circumstances, and with that family, I might have done the same thing."

This Handbook depicts three critical phases in the young poisoner's evolution. The first act details his oppressively dull family life in suburban London; as played by relative unknown English actor Hugh O'Conor (who looks a bit like ex-Talking Head David Byrne, only more wide-eyed and birdlike), the introverted schoolboy Graham rebels against his parents' mental and physical cruelty and his dimwitted sister's derision by withdrawing into his dark, cluttered bedroom and obsessing over his chemistry set. The filmmakers viciously lampoon the stultifying, typically English attitudes personified by Graham's family and classmates, from lack of imagination and zombie-like devotionto inane television to severely repressed sexuality.

The budding alchemist launches an experiment to manufacture diamond crystals out of a mysterious black powder known as antimony. But something goes seriously awry, both with the experiment and with Graham's thinking. Dejected by his first scientific failure, nagged by his mother, slapped around by his father, ridiculed by his sister, and (in his eyes) betrayed by the girl he has developed a crush on, Graham becomes more and more drawn to antimony's toxic properties. Not long afterward, Graham's mother suffers a mysterious abdominal ailment from which she never recovers. (In the midst of her sickness Graham, who mixes his poisons with her doctor-prescribed medicines, switches from antimony to an even more deadly and less traceable agent, thallium.) The woman's death is at once agonizing and gruesome to behold, yet wickedly funny as Graham assumes the role of dutiful nursemaid (the better to monitor his mum's deterioration) and regains his clueless family's approval and his unsuspecting mother's affection. Shortly after her death, Graham's father comes down with the same bizarre disorder, but before Graham can administer enough thallium to kill the old man off, the police catch on. The fourteen-year-old boy is convicted of murder and sentenced to lifetime confinement in a high security mental hospital.

The second chapter in Young's development unfolds at the hospital, where Young's intelligence convinces Dr. Zeigler (Antony Sher), a mental therapist famous the world over for his pioneering work with psychopaths, that he is an ideal candidate for the good doctor's rehabilitation program. Just as the filmmakers take dozens of subtle potshots at middle-class English mores in the early scenes of Graham's comfortably numb family, so too they sink their teeth into the psychiatric profession, portraying Dr. Zeigler as a self-important zealot whose oversize ego sets him up perfectly for Graham's manipulative gamesmanship. After a few years of treating Graham, Dr. Zeigler convinces his colleagues at the hospital to parole the young man and send him back into society. And for a while it looks like Graham Young might make a go of it. But then he gets a job at a photo processing lab where they just happen to be working on a new kind of film that requires the use of bottles and bottles of his old pal thallium. And so begins the third and final chapter in Graham Young's deranged saga.

The Young Poisoner's Handbook doesn't let Graham Young off the hook; his crimes are truly heinous and the film portrays them in a manner that simultaneously blends horror and humor. The movie's gothic, depressing atmosphere makes a more traditional black comedy such as Heathers (or, for that matter, Arsenic and Old Lace) look positively jaunty by comparison. By savaging the hypocritical institutions -- suburban family life, mental hospitals, prison rehabilitation, the modern industrial workplace -- that helped mold a quirky misfit into a calculating, remorseless killer, Ross and Rawle virtually accuse society of complicity in Young's crimes. Wicked laughs abound, but this Young Poisoner has a lot more on its mind than murder by numbers.


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