Picks and Pans Review: The Young Poisoner's Handbook

updated 02/26/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/26/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

Hugh O'Conor

Graham Young was a chemistry-loving young lunatic who, in suburban England in the '60s and '70s, poisoned family, friends and coworkers with thallium, a metallic element that is highly toxic. Director and coscreenwriter Benjamin Ross has taken this crime story and turned it into a vicious black comedy in which middle-class life is depicted as the most sickening poison of all. The killer's home is full of ugly furniture and homely malcontents and lighted a gluey blue.

Handbook is at its most unpleasant in the first part, in which the poisoner experiments on his loved ones. To the bafflement of doctors—and thanks to thallium—his stepmother (Ruth Sheen) is reduced to a hairless, paralyzed, brain-damaged invalid who has figured out the truth but can't communicate it. In these scenes, Ross strikes a chillingly effective balance between the disgusting and the absurd.

No mean feat. He's helped immensely by O'Conor (young Christy Brown in My Left Foot). Spindly, pointy-nosed and beady-eyed, O'Conor looks like someone who might have been summer-camp bunkmates with the teenage Kafka. (Not rated)

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