The twisted world of the; butcher of Neasden

He cut his teeth on The Toxic Avenger, then honed his craft hacking at celluloid with a cleaver. Now cutting meets chemistry in Benjamin Ross's tale of weird goings on on the North Circular. By Ryan Gilbey
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When you're watching the new British film The Young Poisoner's Handbook, you don't wonder at the sort of mind that could have alighted upon this macabre patch of suburban life - after all, every budding auteur seems to be burrowing through yellowed old gazettes these days in an attempt to turn up the scandalous stories that time forgot (or making up their own). But few inhabit the criminal mind as fully, or expose it in quite such vivid, intoxicating detail, as The Young Poisoner's Handbook. And you find yourself thinking that the sort of person who could turn their flashlight so brightly on material of such a horrific nature, and do it with such disarmingly fizzy humour, must be a few frames short of a reel themselves.

The film's director, the wild-haired, wild-eyed 31-year-old Benjamin Ross, does strike you as a touch unhinged. But only because he is so enthusiastically affectionate toward his art. He loves everything about his job, everything that other directors might gripe about: laborious script revisions, tight budgets, late nights, early mornings, and most of all the process of hacking away at celluloid with a cleaver.

"I love losing stuff!" he says, joyously. "It's great to spend days assembling something only to chop it out again. What distinguishes films that turn out well from those that don't is whether or not you can still get excited about it when you go back for the 3,000th time and say `no, that scene still doesn't work.' If it's not exciting for you to keep making those discoveries, you're not suited to film-making."

Even sunken into a comfortable sofa clutching a glass of orange juice, Ross buzzes with enough sheer physical energy to win a Gladiators tournament, or at least beat Wolf and get through to the semi-final. Fortunately, he has proved himself adept at channelling this kinetic personality into his feature film debut.

You can forget your Gilmores and your Mansons. The Young Poisoner's Handbook gives us north London teenager Graham Young (played by Hugh O'Conor), following him from his dabblings with a chemistry set at the age of 14, through his conviction for murder and imprisonment in a mental hospital, to his tentative release back into society. The story begins in 1961, but Ross himself didn't chance upon Graham Young until 1972.

"I was eight," he recalls. "My mother and I were fascinated by the story - he had lived locally in Neasden, the North Circular road, so it was my landscape really."

It wasn't until he found himself homesick in New York at the end of the 1980s, having graduated from the prestigious Columbia Film School, that he exhumed his morbid fascination and set to work constructing a screenplay. The plan was to finish it, then take it to a producer in England. Coincidentally, that producer had discovered that Jeff Rawles, an actor best known as George in Drop the Dead Donkey, was researching the Graham Young case and also planning to write a film about it. Ross and Rawles decided to pool their talents. Their agenda was clear.

"Our first decision was not to do an Equus and make the psychiatrist the focal point. We wanted to have madness, or what people call madness, as the centre of the piece, so that there was no moral barometer for you. The movie twists you, and I think people need to be twisted. So often you come out of the cinema feeling soothed, patronised, morphined up to the eyeballs or given a jerk-off. It's important that people should take a journey they'd rather not take, and leave with a firecracker up their arse."

Ross hasn't left a cinema with his bottom aflame in this manner for a considerable time. "I fell out of love with cinema quite a long time ago," he admits glumly. "By the early 1980s, my tastes were pretty well formed. I think we've become too post-modern. Cinema needs to be shifted back to life and ideas. Films like The Conversation were self-reflexive, sure, but they were about life, too. And they were radical, clued-up films. Showing at your local!"

Despite such proclamations, you shouldn't take him for a snob. If he were, he wouldn't have lasted a minute in the company of Troma Films, the notorious trash-movie merchants with whom Ross landed a spot of work experience while he was at university.

His aunt was selling movie advertising to the trade papers and, conversing daily with independent film companies, she stuck her foot in the Troma door on her nephew's behalf. However, it wasn't just any old Troma production- line garbage - it was the gore classic by which the company is known. The Toxic Avenger, no less.

"Yes, the toxic element was prescient, don't you think? I ended up doing the special-effects guy's job, experimenting with explosives. I remember we had to blow up a dog." He leans forward, concerned. "A fake dog," he adds.

After Troma, he won a scholarship to Columbia, where he spent three years making terrible films. But there were advantages: the competition, the equipment, the contacts. "I'd rather do that than work in a video store," he admits when Tarantino crops up in our conversation.

Ironically, it was this spell in the States that convinced him he wanted to make films in Britain. "You're abroad and talking to people about your home and you start playing it up a bit. First you're exaggerating, then you're embellishing, then you're narrating and inventing. And that's what story-telling is - taking a kernel of truth and riffing on it. People said, `Why don't you put that stuff in a movie?' "

As opposed to, say, making films about the Holocaust. In New York. On no money. Which was what he did at Columbia. "Yes, that was a bit silly, really," he admits.

The new movie is dense with rich, often hallucinatory, images of London - exactly the sort of thing you'd expect from an Englishman who used to lie to make his dreary home country sound more exciting. But this stylistic excess, which communicates Graham's state of mind acutely, shouldn't obscure the serious subtext that tries to comprehend rather than damn the notion of evil. For Ross, this was highlighted by the James Bulger case, which was stealing the headlines as he and Rawles were writing the Poisoner script.

"I'm just surprised that it doesn't happen more often," he says. "And I was shocked that the country vilified those youngsters. I suspect there was a silent majority out there who, somewhere deep inside them when they went to bed, were thinking, `How close we came when we rounded on that boy in the playground - how easily we could have killed him.' It's too simple to distance yourself by calling them monsters. The Nazis became monsters, but their monstrosity started at cocktail parties. Those who want to stop us from realising that evil is in all of us are actually very dangerous."

For the time being at least, Ross will continue reminding us of this fact, and making us squirm in our seats, and laugh at those things that would usually have us hiding beneath the duvet. Because he has no plans to return to America.

"New York is a buzz, you can't deny that. But film is a very physical art, and you have to root yourself in what you know. That's true of John Ford and the West, Scorsese and Little Italy, Pasolini and Rome."

Benjamin Ross and Neasden?

"Absolutely. I'm glad of my little turf. I know it's pathetic but it's mine".

n See Sheila Johnston's review on page 11