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A Toxic Avenger

Boy Genius: Hugh O'Conor experiments as the young poisoner.

"Poisoner's Tea' has a clever kick

By Richard von Busack

A zesty and stylish little horror-comedy, The Young Poisoner's Handbook emphasizes the horror rather than the comedy. It's based (unreliably) on the career of Graham Young, a suburban English murderer who never lost his manners even after poisoning nearly a dozen people.

Young (played by Hugh O'Conor, a pale little man on the order of Harold and Maude's Bud Cort) realizes early on that he has a genius for untraceable poisons. Sprung from a hospital for the criminally insane by a kindly doctor (Anthony Sher) who sees a metaphoric plight in his fairly naked urge to poison people, Young tries to make a home for himself in grotty mid-'70s London. But his original calling snaps him out of the nice life of quiet desperation.

Our sympathies are with Young when a cabinet full of his favorite toxin--thallium--sort of leaps out at him, tempting him back into wickedness. The fluorescent, candy-colored powders in his chemistry set are some of the prettiest things in the movie; the victims, by contrast, are all richly deserving of a dollop of poison in their tea.

The film loads the case for murder. In Young's world, bad music and braying people go together. The best of British smarm is slathered over the soundtrack, from the syrupy Anthony Newley-like crooning of the imaginary singing favorite Dickie Boone (Peter Pacey) to a number of '70s hits you never wanted to hear again. Political idiocy also makes Young's world a frightful place. When Young goes to commune with nature, some jerk has scrawled "Pakis Keep Out" on the sign welcoming visitors to the park. When he goes to dose a factory's worth of tea cups, the mugs all bear the Union Jack and the jingoist motto "I'm Backing Britain."

Director Benjamin Ross has been quoted as saying that "here the killer is 'normal'; it's everyone else that's peculiar. It hasn't often been done before." Well, more often than all that, as Ross himself proves by Ross' use on the soundtrack of "The Thieving Magpie"--the unofficial love theme from A Clockwork Orange. There were somewhat sympathetic murderers fighting their way out of a bizarre society in Kubrick's film, as there were in the ambiguous thrillers of Hitchcock or the Ealing Studios comedies in which likable actors like Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers politely dispatched civilians who stood in their way.

This is not a great era for irony, and something as low-key as the 1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets, one of my very favorite movies on the subject of justifiable homicide, might be too quiet for a modern audience. But having said that, Ruth Sheen, as Young's horrible stepmother, has a face and a presence meant for comic horror. And although The Young Poisoner's Handbook might not be the most original film ever made, its sardonic attitude is a distinct pleasure.

The Young Poisoner's Handbook (R; 99 min.), directed by Ben Ross, written by Ross and Jeff Rawle, photographed by Hubert Tacznowski and starring Hugh O'Conor, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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