By Owen Gleiberman
Updated January 13, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

In the Realms of the Unreal is a singular and haunting experience. It’s a documentary that animates, in every sense, the mysterious world of Henry Darger, an impoverished recluse who spent years living in a dingy cramped room in Chicago. Upon his death in 1973, it was discovered that this muttery old man, who was possibly a functioning schizophrenic, had left behind a novel of 15,000 pages illustrated by 300 paintings of beautiful and astonishing weirdness. As you watch, Henry Darger emerges as the epic poet of outsider art. His novel, the Tolkienesque chronicle of a thunderous religious war, is saturated with Catholic pain and transcendence, and so are his drawings, which director Jessica Yu infuses with delicate movement (think Yellow Submarine as painted by Toulouse-Lautrec). They feature obsessive images of angelic little girls, often naked, who are never seen as anything but soldiers of God.