Monday, 2 November 2015

Legend of the Werewolf (1975, Freddie Francis)

Only three features were produced in the mid-1970s by the Tyburn Film Productions Ltd of father and son team Freddie Francis and Kevin Francis, and all three of this triptych of terrors were of the Gothic and ghoulish persuasion that the name of the production company intimated - not that i suppose that anyone expected a company named after the famed gallows (the 'Tyburn Tree') that had seen the dangling deaths of many a murdering brigand, convicted traitor and religious martyr to be releasing any kind of sugary Disneyesque output.

Tyburn's first real offering (after 1973's Amicus-style portmanteau movie Tales That Witness Madness, helmed by Francis senior and released under the banner of World Film Services) was Persecution (aka: The Terror of Sheba, 1974, Don Chaffey), featuring Hollywood legend Lana Turner as the domineering mother of Ralph Bates in a melodramatic thriller reminiscent of Robert Aldrich's Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964).  A year later, Freddie Francis (who had begun his film career as cinematographer on such movies as Cyril Frankel's Never Take Sweets from a Stranger [1960], Karel Reisz' Saturday Night and Sunday Morning [1960] and Jack Clayton's The Innocents [1961] before going on to direct Hammer chillers Paranoiac [1963], Nightmare [1964], The Evil of Frankenstein [1964] and Dracula Has Risen from the Grave [1968]) would himself direct two horror pictures to be released by Tyburn, both starring Hammer horror stalwart Peter Cushing.  One was The Ghoul, a fog-shrouded Roaring Twenties-set potboiler influenced by H. P. Lovecraft's "The Dunwich Horror", featuring future star of television's Survivors (BBC TV, 1975 - 1977) and Italian splatter classics Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979, Lucio Fulci) and Zombie Holocaust (1980, Marino Girolami) Ian McCulloch, as well as Alexandra Bastedo of The Champions (ITC, 1968 - 1969) and Vicente Aranda's Iberian reworking of Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla", La Novia Ensangrentada, aka The Blood Spattered Bride (1972).

Tyburn's alternate 1975 offering was Legend of the Werewolf, utilising - like it's Ghoulish sibling - a script by Hammer's Anthony Hinds (written under his usual nom-de-plume of John Elder) that had been dormant and unproduced since a year or so after Hammer had made Hinds' The Curse of the Werewolf (1961, Terence Fisher).  Originally titled Wolf Boy, Elder's scenario was reworked to incorporate elements from another script optioned by Tyburn, Plague of the Werewolves written by Frederick Warner - who had contributed additional scenes and dialogue to Persecution the year before.

Opening with a prologue narrated by Cushing, the film sets its scene with the birth of a child to a family of gypsies fleeing persecution in the early years of the 19th century.  With the mother dying in childbirth and the father killed by a pack of wild wolves in the forest, the child - marked as an Outsider tinged by tragedy from birth - is raised in Mowgli-esque fashion by the wolves that slew his family until he is captured as a feral youth by a traveling circus after being shot by circus strongman Tiny (Norman Mitchell) as they both hunt a rabbit (rifle beats teeth, in case anyone wondered).  Taken in by the itinerant show's impresario-cum-ringmaster Maestro Pomponi (an amusing eccentric comic turn by Hugh Griffith) and his tattooed lady wife, the boy is names Etoile (meaning 'star', as anyone with a GCSE in French or an arcane major in the Major Arcana of the Tarot will be able to tell you) and exhibited by the circus as 'The Wolf Boy', snarling loincloth clad in a cage for the coins of the gawping villagers visiting the show.  This geek freak proves unique enough to turn around the fortunes of Pomponi's show, and young Etoile is provided for and raised to manhood in the company of the carnies.

Now a young man, Etoile (David Rintoul, Mr Fitzwilliam Darcy in the 1980 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and the titular Doctor Finlay [1993 - 1996]) finds himself undergoing some strange chemical changes and growing lots of bodily hair (but that's puberty for you!) and engaging in some carnivorous lunar activities under the baleful glare of the full moon, tearing out Tiny's throat on his first lupine rampage.  Cinematographer John Wilcox (who had worked with Freddie Francis on The Evil of Frankenstein and The Skull [1965], as well as photographing both of Milton Subotsky's Doctor Who film adaptations Dr Who and the Daleks [1965] and Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 A. D. [1966], The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires [1974] and The Ghoul) gives us a unique 'Wolf's Eye View' perspective shot, with a tracking subjective camera with a red filter roving through the trees - and later, the cobbled Parisienne streets - as the lycanthrope stalks his victims.

Fleeing the scene of his crime and becoming one of the few young people to run away from joining the circus, Etoile finds himself in 1800s Paris, where he secures employment at a run down menagerie presided over by a dissolute zookeeper (a wonderfully grotesque and caricatured performance by Ron Moody) and finds solace in caring for his near-kin, the wolves.  The naive young shapeshifter finds himself the victim of another curse - that of love - when he quickly falls hard for Christine (Lynn Dalby), one of a group of attractive young ladies who visit the zoo during lunch hours from their place of employment across the road - a brothel run by Madame Tellier.

With his turbulent emotions running wild, Etoile finds himself once more becoming a raging animal at the whims of the lunar cycle and his bloodstained times of the month (i'm probably overdoing this metaphor, yeah?) sees him targeting with his teeth some of the gentlemen callers to the Madame's establishment.  These Jack the Ripper in reverse style scenarios see men in top hats and capes being stalked through the fog shrouded streets on their way home from their assignations to meet a decidedly unhappy ending.  perhaps there is a parallel to be drawn betwixt these men having paid for and used these young women like meat to satiate their animal urges now being torn into strips of flesh by a creature of pure bestial instinct and unfettered id.  probably, but i was about ten when i saw the movie and i was just happy with the gore to be honest.

The always reliable Cushing gives a good turn as police pathologist Paul Cataflanque (the name being mined for humour in an exchange with Moody's Zookeeper: 'Mister Cata...?' '...Flanque', smiles Cushing.  'Flonk!' deadpans Moody), who along with his assistant Boulon (David Bailie, or davidbailie as i believe it is nowadays spelled) investigates this trail of eviscerated corpses that the local prefect of police (John Harvey) has down as the work of a wild animal, leading to an order for the wolves of the zoo to be destroyed - an order that it falls on Etoile to carry out in an agonising sequence as he tearfully kills the creatures that are more his kin that cruel mankind.

Solid if unspectacular direction from Francis and some good performances lift the material even as the paucity of the films budget is belied by some of the Pinewood backlot sets and locations, and the misspelled French of the street signage.  The werewolf makeup by Graham Freeborn (son of Stuart Freeborn, the creator of and visual inspiration for Yoda of the Star Wars saga) is good, though highly reminiscent of Roy Ashton's vulpine version of Ollie Reed in Curse of the Werewolf, and the sequences as Etoile prowls through the darkened sewers - killing a ratcatcher played by Hammer veteran Michael Ripper on the way - are quite atmospheric and effective.

Also featuring a cameo from Roy Castle as an effete aesthete of a photographer called in to record a scene of slaughter in daguerreotype to his horror, Legend of the Werewolf along with its Ghoulish sibling marks a watershed moment in horror, as the golden age of the British horror film's last gasp.  Tyburn Film Productions would go on to make the Peter Cushing Sherlock Holmes film The Masks of Death for television in 1984, as well as two documentaries (G'Ole! [1983], about the 1982 football World Cup, and the 1989 biography Peter Cushing: A One-Way Ticket to Hollywood [1989]) but no more features.  Hammer Films were well into their long decline, and would release To the Devil, a Daughter in 1976 as their last horror feature for more than three decades, whilst Amicus Productions had ended their horror cycle with the Peter Cushing and Vincent Price vehicle Madhouse in 1974, and would peter out with the creature feature sequel The People That Time Forgot in 1977.  So as this era of the British horror film came to a close, it seems fitting that stalwarts of the scene both in front of and behind the camera, in the persons of Cushing and Francis, should be there to see it out.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Dracula [Spanish language version] (George Melford, 1930)

 In 1897, the Irish writer, ex-clerk and sometime theatre manager Abraham 'Bram' Stoker unleashed his opus Dracula upon an unsuspecting world.  This has been viewed by lovers of the Gothic and the macabre as A Good Move.

In 1922, the German film director Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau decided not to bother with all of that 'securing permission from the copyright holders' nonsense, and to mount a thinly-veiled (with the names of characters changed to protect the not so innocent) 'free adaptation' of Dracula entitled Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens ('a Symphony of Horrors').  Although the author's widow, Florence Stoker, gained a court order for the destruction of all copies of the movie, prints thankfully survived and it is now widely viewed as one of the most important and influential horror films ever made, and a cornerstone of the genre.  This is not its story.

In 1924, actor and producer Hamilton Deane staged the first ever theatrical adaptation of Dracula, starring Edmund Blake as the titular Count and Deane himself as Dracula's arch-nemesis, the vampire slayer Van Helsing, in Derby.  We all have to start somewhere.  By 1927 the play had proven popular enough for American producer Horace Liveright to engage John L. Balderston to Americanise and adapt it for a U.S. audience, and it opened on Broadway starring unknown Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in the title role, and Edward van Sloan as Van Helsing.  261 Broadway performances, a national tour and three years later, Universal Pictures would pay $40, 000 for the screen rights and bring the show and its two lead actors to the silver screen in the world's first legitimate (discounting the bait 'n' switch trick of the Tod Browning / Lon Chaney 1927 lost classic London After Midnight) vampire film, helmed by 'Master of the Macabre' Tod Browning and immortalising Lugosi as Dracula incarnate.  This is not its story.

Rather, this is the parallel production, shot on the self-same sets at night after production on the Browning version (ha!) had finished, with a Spanish-speaking cast. The brainchild of associate producer Paul Kohner (who had served as supervising producer on Universal's silent fright classic The Cat and the Canary [Paul Leni, 1927]), who approached Universal head Carl Laemmle with the proposal of eschewing the practice of dubbing in favour of a full alternate language production, and directed by veteran director George Melford (who routinely helmed adventure pictures such as The Flame of the Yukon [1926], Sea Fury [1929] and The Viking [1930], but had a long list of credits including the Rudolph Valentino classic The Sheik [1921]) the production team would set out with the express intention of making a better film than Browning and Lugosi.  As film historian David J. Skal says:

"Paul Kohner had the opportunity to produce the Spanish version of Dracula, and he decided to upstage Tod Browning's effort at every chance he could."

Engaging screenwriter Baltasar Fernandez Cue to adapt the John L. Balderston and Garrett Fort Dracula script (which had in turn, of course been adapted from the playscript by Hamilton Deane, which was adapted from the Stoker novel...) into Spanish, the crew and cast - headed by Carlos Villarias (who, later in life, would feature in Hugo Fregonese's 1953 Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine starring Boccaccio adaptation Decameron Nights) as Conde Dracula and Mexican ingenue Lupita Tovar (Tropic Fury [Christy Cabanne, 1939], The Crime Doctor's Courage [George Sherman, 1945]) as the renamed Mina character, Eva - began filming on the already-constructed Charles D. Hall designed sets in the evenings after the cast of Browning's film had completed.  As Lupita Tovar (later Kohner, after she and Paul Kohner married) remembers:

"The cast for the English version would shoot... The Spanish cast would start in the evenings and shoot all night long 'til next morning, because we used exactly the same sets.  In fact, we had the same marks that the English cast had.  We stepped in exactly the same place."

With the advantage of being able to view the previous days' rushes from Browning's film, Melford - although not able to speak a word of Spanish, and communicating with his Hispanophone cast through an interpreter - would find ways to improve upon Browning's static and stagey presentation.  As Universal had acquired a surviving copy of the 1922 Nosferatu, Kohner and Melford would view the Murnau film and utilise it as inspiration for several shots and sequences, resulting in a Dracula based much more in the tradition of cinema than the stage.


"The result is a film that, unlike many of these foreign versions which are quite forgettable today, is superior in most technical levels to the Tod Browning film."

Better paced, clocking in at 104 minutes as opposed to the Browning feature's truncated 75, and featuring Dracula staples oddly missing from its Anglophone sibling (the punctures of the vampire's bite upon the neck of Carmen Guerrero's Lucia are featured in close up, whereas Browning throws away any such reveal after Drac's attack on Frances Dade's dull Lucy), the production would also utilise a greater fluidity of camera movement courtesy of cinematographer George Robinson (The Invisible Ray [1936], Son of Frankenstein [1939], Tarantula [1955]) - including a wonderful tracking crane shot up the crumbling staircase of Castle Dracula to reveal out first sight of Villarias' Count, silhouetted against a giant spider's web - that outshines anything achieved by Browning and his cinematographer Karl Freund (and considering Freund's reputation for the camera, having worked on Paul Wegener's The Golem [1920], Murnau's The Last Laugh [1924] and Fritz Lang's visionary Metropolis [1927], as well as his accomplishments as director on The Mummy [1932] and Mad Love [1935], one feels that the blame for the listless and dull stagebound nature of the Lugosi film must fall squarely at Browning's feet).

 Featuring good support from Pablo Alvarez Rubio as a Renfield who's a match in mania for Dwight Frye's celebrated portrayal, and Argentinian actor Barry Norton as 'Juan' Harker, one finds oneself dearly wishing that Melford (and some of his cast, including Tovar and Guerrero) had filmed the English language version with Lugosi (who interesting fleetingly appears - as ghostlike as the undead Count himself - in long-shot in alternate shots and outtakes from Browning's movie).  In that way audiences would truly get the legendary Universal Dracula production that disappointing hype has made the Browning film out to be.  But here we have a fascinating lost classic that any film buff without an aversion to monochrome or subtitles would do well to seek out.

As Lupita Tovar said:

"We wanted our version to be the best, and - according to the critics - i think it was."


Bela Lugosi's dead.  Lupita Tovar Kohner celebrated her 105th birthday this year.


                                      (A young Lupita Tovar.  Because it's my blog and why not?)

(David J. Skal and Lupita Tovar quotes from interviews in Kevin Brownlow's superlative 1998 documentary Universal Horror, which i also wholeheartedly recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in the genre and period.)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Avengers: 'A Touch of Brimstone' (James Hill, 1966)

 Another of this notionally cinematic blog's occasional detours into the realms of the televisual here, just to coincide with my current marathon of The Avengers hitting one of the series' most notable and controversial highlights - Brian Clemens' and James Hill's gleeful and infamous "A Touch of Brimstone".

When i began this Avengers-athon a few months ago i found myself enjoying the early 'gritty' phase of the series, the time when this was a show about Ian Hendry's Dr David Keel avenging the murder of his fiancee, of Keel and Steed stalking through noir-ish stories in raincoats, of the ineffectual Martin King, of Venus Smith and her chansons and of Honor Blackman as Catherine Gale of the judo throws and the kinky boots (oh, and now i have that song stuck in my head).  In fact, i was enjoying the neglected early phase of the programme so much (how hipsterish of me) that i found myself approaching the much lauded, much repeated 'Steed and Mrs Peel' phase of the show with something approaching dread.  It just wasn't going to be the same - it was going to throw away the verisimilitude of real world settings and believable characters for quips and a lighter touch and fairytale and i probably wouldn't like it.  And then i realised that i was beginning to sound like a bitter old Doctor Who fan mumbling into his real ale darkly of Moffat and murder and bring back RTD, and a quick self-delivered headsmack later i stopped.

What on Earth was i worried about?  This era of the show, wherein it went from ABC (Associated British Corporation) to the ABC of the Yoo-Ess of Ay, and escaped the videotaped claustrophobic confines of Teddington Studios for the filmed vistas of Elstree - all overseen by the new producer Julian Wintle (with Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens as executive and associate producers) - is viewed by fans both hardcore and casual as a golden age for a reason.  And this particular nugget of dark sulphuric wit, written by Clemens (later to be the scriptwriter of And Soon the Darkness [1970], Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde [1971], The Golden Voyage of Sinbad [1973], Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter [1974] and The Watcher in the Woods [1980]) as he was approaching the height of his powers as a writer of witty fantastique, and ably helmed by Hill (A Study in Terror [1965], Born Free [1966], Black Beauty [1971]) with the leading duo of Patrick Macnee's John Steed and Diana Rigg's Emma Peel in the full bloom of their witty / flirty / sexy charm.

 Opening with an arch statement of intent performance from guest villain Peter Wyngarde (The Innocents [1961], Night of the Eagle [1962], Flash Gordon [1980] as well of course as television's Department S [1969 - 70] and Jason King [1971 - 72]) as the debonair, decadent and distinctly dis-Honourable John Cleverly Cartney the scene is soon set for foxy flirting betwixt the carnal Cartney and an icily imperious investigating Emma ('I've come here to appeal to you, Mr Cartney' says Mrs Peel undercover as a charity collector.  'You certainly do that...' he rogueishly replies).

 Cartney, along with a cabal of upper-crust rakes, rogues and reprobates, has revived the Hellfire Club - the infamous 18th century society dedicated to decadence and 'Do what thou wilt' (a motto later expanded upon the The Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley) founded by Philip, Duke of Wharton and later made (in)famous by Sir Francis Dashwood before the decline of the cult of carousing.  Cartney and his henchmen have resurrected the rituals of the Club in raucous and Rabelaisian meetings spent in 1700s period dress indulging in the gratification of the senses in orgies of wine, women and cries of 'Hellfire!' that may qualify as song.  A sideline of pranks played on visiting dignitaries (such as the opening scene's exploding cigar causing the humiliation of a Russian ambassador) leading to governmental embarrassment have lately escalated into murder, leading to Steed and Peel getting on the case and infiltrating the Club.

Paradoxically both the highest-rated episode during The Avengers' original television run, and the story the was notoriously banned in the USA and remained unscreened during it's American network run (though stories of TV executives gathering in hotel rooms for 'private viewings' of it have abounded for years), much of "A Touch of Brimstone"'s reputation hangs not only on its artfully debauched air of decadence but on That Costume worn by Diana Rigg when Mrs Peel is put on display by Cartney for his roistering chums as The Queen of Sin.  The outfit of corset, knee-high boots and leashed collar studded with the three inch spikes (oh, and a snake: tres Santanico Pandaemonium!) may not quite be gentleman's relish for the palate of today's internet-jaded public, but at a time when television censors went snippety-snip double quick at the word 'Hell' in dialogue or an exposed belly button, those American network chiefs gathered around their flickering screens in seedy hotel rooms must have been having palpitations.

Oh, and if you'll pardon my problematic Male Gaze, it still works for me - especially since the indomitable Mrs Peel remains unbowed and not cowed throughout the cracks and lashes of Cartney's whip (another controversial element, which was cut for both domestic and international release, and the scene remaining unseen in full until its pristine DVD restoration).

Also starring Colin Jeavons, Jeremy Young and Monty Python's Carol Cleveland "A Touch of Brimstone" is a fine example of a television series and its confident pomp and prime, wittily written, artfully directed and fronted by a trio of superlative performances from Macnee, Rigg and Wyngarde.

'Mrs Peel, we're needed.'  You certainly are.  Who's Ian Hendry again?

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

The Ninja Squad (1986, Godfrey Ho & Robert W Young)

Another nugget of movie-making gold from the crazed minds of Godfrey Ho, Joseph Lai, and the must-be-fictional IFD script unit. This time our pal Richard Harrison (who is unnerving without his trademark moustache, just like a young Burt Reynolds or a post-Fawlty John Cleese) returns as Ninja Master Gordon to train a young lad named Billy in the mystical arts of ninjitsu.

Unfortunately for Billy, he hasn't reckoned on the lack of job prospects for 18th century Japanese assassins down at the local labour exchange, and finds himself returning to his home town without money or gainful employment, and facing a gang of extortionist thugs threatening his poor old mother that if she doesn't find any cash they'll "burn down your fuckin' house"!!! Class.

Whilst young Billy wrestles with the domestic soap opera aspects of ninja existence, his master Gordon is entangled in conflict with the startling Ivan the Red (Dave Wheeler), who possesses an amazing costume, a ludicrously macho and husky dubbed voice, and a truly sensational bass-lead theme tune. Seriously: if they release "Ivan's Theme" i predict it as Christmas number one with full confidence.

 Ivan's challenge to Gordon to fight to the death for NINJA SUPREMACY is spurned, and so Mr. The Red decides to take out a number of random ninjas clad in outfits of varying ludicrousness as they "train" (jump about a bit) in various neighbouring fields. Obviously, we're all waiting for the final showdown between these two ninja colossi, and we aren't disappointed.



 Well, we are, to be honest, but as with all of these movies, it's the journey , not the destination, that matters. And when we've encountered such hilariously inept dialogue, thrillingly pounding basslines, and dubbing so bad it may well make you mentally ill along the way, who can possibly complain? Only the type of person who wouldn't even "revenge" their own mother.

Harrison: reading the script, appalled, 1986.

                                      No-one defeats Ivan the Red!  Hahahaaaa!!!! (My hero)

Monday, 14 September 2015

October Moth (1960, John Kruse)

One of several features made in the early to mid 1960s by the British Independent Artists Ltd out of Beaconsfield Studios and released contemporaneously with the Edgar Wallace Mysteries B-film strand, October Moth stands as the sole film to have been written and directed by John Kruse, author and screenwriter of the classic Hell Drivers (1957).

Distributed by Rank Film Distributors and boasting a soundtrack composed by Humphrey Searle (The Abominable Snowman [1957], The Haunting [1963], Doctor Who: The Myth Makers [1965]), October Moth is a tight and taut little psychodrama that packs a lot of character orientated punch into its brief (like the lifecycle of the lepidopterous insect of the title) into its brief 54 minute span.

 Much of the movie is a theatrical (in the best possible Brechtian black box theatre sense of the word) two - hander between the characters of brother and sister Finlay (Lee Patterson, Time Lock [1957], Jack the Ripper [1959], The Three Worlds of Gulliver [1960]) and Molly (Lana Morris, Trouble in Store [1953], Radio Cab Murder [1954]) in their isolated farmhouse, in which their relationship appears top have spiraled into a solipsistic borderline - incestuous nightmare.  Patterson gives a very good tense and wiry performance as the jittery Finlay, slightly reminiscent of Anthony Perkins' Norman Bates in Hitchcock's masterful Psycho, made the very same year, as he brings back to this remote and isolated locale an injured woman he has rescued from a car crash - an accident apparently caused by the driver swerving to avoid the fire started by Finlay's upended moth jar, drawing his 'victim' towards him like a moth to a literal flame.

 'Ma's come back - Pa did it, not me.' says the deluded Finlay to his terrified sister. 'She looked at me.  She told me that she loved me.'  This Misery - esque tableau is played out whilst poor Molly grows more and more anxious about her clearly disturbed brother, as he becomes ever more deranged.  'I feel Pa's about,' he declaims, not satisfied with abducting an ersatz mother, 'I dream about him night after night.  Not his face - his face is blurred.  But his boots, and the swing of his hand and the stink of the beer on him!'

 Molly's attempted cries for help via local linesman for the county (and yes, now i have Glen Campbell stuck in my head...) Tom Driver add a frisson to the situation, as Finlay becomes increasingly aware of the trying-to-be-helpful Tom's presence upon the grounds, but equates him with the menacing presence of the Bogeyman-esque 'Pa'.  'You pretend he's alive for the same reason you pretend the woman in there is Mother,' yells Molly as she reaches the end of her tether, 'Because it's all unfinished!  Because he died before you were big enough to avenge her!'

 A great tense little suspenser that rip-roars along in under an hour, October Moth is a curio that i can heartily recommend to all aficionados of the obscure.  But as the inevitable occurs, and the sinister sibling saga ends in inevitable sacrifice of life, we are left with the desolation of Molly's words to Tom: 'When no-one needs you, you're nothing.'

 Sniff.  Nihil sum i s'pose.  Still, who needs family, eh?

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960, Cyril Frankel)

 Yet another in the run of Hammer Films' black and white thrillers of early 1960s, Cyril Frankel's masterful Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (released in the US by distributors Columbia Pictures under the Americanised title of Never Take Candy from a Stranger) takes a bold step for a film of the period in tackling a subject much more unnerving and horrifying to cinemagoers than the Gothic tomb-rent revenants put out by the famed Hammer Horror studio - paedophilia.

The young star of the film, Janina Faye, had already appeared twice for Hammer - as little Tania in Terence Fisher's classic Dracula (US title Horror of Dracula) in 1958, and again under Fisher's direction as the mute orphan girl in 1960's The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll.  She would go on two years later to star in another film with the thorny theme of the child predator, Pat Jackson's Don't Talk to Strange Men.  This film's director, Cyril Frankel, had made a splash with the Irish-set drama She Didn't Say No (1958) - which had been banned in the Emerald Isle for its 'immoral' content - and had also, in an uncredited capacity, helmed much of the classic School for Scoundrels (1960) when original director Robert Hamer was relieved of his duties due to the alcoholism which would soon claim his life.  Frankel would direct a full-blooded 'Hammer Horror' in 1966, the Joan Fontaine - starring The Witches.

Never take Sweets... was touted on its Columbia Pictures release as 'the most challenging film of the decade', and the Coming Attractions trailer led with the legend 'Our story takes place in Eastern Canada, but it could happen to children anywhere'.  The screenplay by John Hunter was based upon the three-act play The Pony Cart by Roger Garis, American author of the Outboard Boys series of children's adventure books, and apparently based upon a real-life incident involving Garis' own daughter.

The film opens innocuously enough, with two young girls, Jean Carter (Janina Faye) and Lucille Demarest (Frances Green) playing on a swing in woodland, before the revelation that they are being watched by the elderly Clarence Olderberry through binoculars from the window of his turreted room.  When Jean realises that she has dropped and lost her candy money, she is told by Lucille that there is a place she knows where they can obtain lots of candy, and the children head off in the direction of the Olderberry house, chillingly setting the tone of the picture as the credits begin to roll.

Jean's parents, Peter (Patrick Allen, 1984 [1956], Captain Clegg [aka Night Creatures, 1962], The Night of the Big Heat [1967], The Black Adder [1983]) and Sally Carter (Gwen Watford, Cleopatra [1963], Taste the Blood of Dracula [1970], The Ghoul [1975]) are recent arrivals with their family to the provincial Canadian locale of Jamestown, where Peter has taken up the post of principal of the high school.  we are quickly introduced to the snallmindedness and small-town thinking of the local academic community through the gossipy Sylvia Kingsley (Helen Horton, Phase IV [1974], Alien [1979] and Superman III [1983]), the Helen Lovejoy - like serpent in the groves of academe.  When young Jean tells her parents that the expedition to the Olderberry house resulted in both she and Lucille being instructed by old Mr Olderberry to dance naked for him, Sally's immediate instinct to alert the authorities is questioned by the grandmother Martha (Alison Leggatt, This Happy Breed [1944], Waterloo Road [1945], The Day of the Triffids [1963]), who questions the wisdom of rash action.  'I know how tough children can be', she says, minimising the scale of Olderberry's actions in a grim prelude of the town's closing ranks against the 'Outsiders' who are 'stirring up trouble', from whispered gossip in the hairdressing salon to the resistance against taking matters further from the local police - 'You and your husband are strangers in this town,' says Captain Hammond to Sally, 'No-one knows much about you... [this means] quite a lot, in a place like this.'

The Olderberry family's standing in the community is continually emphasised, from their ownership of the saw mill which provides so much local employment (including the job of Lucille's father Tom Demarest [Robert Arden, Omen III: The Final Conflict (1981), D. A. R. Y. L. (1985), The Little Shop of Horrors (1986)] who refuses to become involved and packs his daughter off to live with her aunt to keep her from testifying against Olderberry) to their patronage of the Coldhill Sanitorium private hospital. The town's conspiracy of silence extends to Olderberry's tendencies being widely known and whispered about, but nobody has ever come forth and taken action.  The family's scion Richard Olderberry (Bill Nagy, The Night of the Prowler [1962], Battle Beneath the Earth [1967]) reacts against Peter's offer to drop prosecution in return for making sure that Olderberry Senior is kept under supervision with prideful threats: 'A high school principal needs the goodwill of the community...You're on trial - we can get rid of you!', and dismissing the Carters as 'lousy outsiders' with the promise that if this should go to court and little Jean take the stand, his lawyers will 'tear [her] apart, on my instructions!'

And this threat is not idle, as the case proceeds to court, silence falling as the Carters enter the courtroom like strangers entering The Slaughtered Lamb, as Jean is led like the lamb to the slaughter and Olderberry (Felix Aylmer, so wonderful in such roles as Polonius in Olivier's Hamlet [1948], Merlin in Knights of the Round Table [1953] and the elderly Stephen Banning in Hammer's The Mummy [1959], projecting silent menace in a wordless performance) glowers from the dock as his attack dog of a defence attorney (Niall MacGinnis, the Satanic Karswell of Night of the Demon [1957]) hounds young Jean on the witness stand, picking apart her testimony whilst cross-examining her in front of a crowded courtroom and causing the viewer to question whether the Carters are doing the right thing in subjecting her to this ordeal, rather than go along with the townsfolk and 'sweep it under the carpet'.  The traumatic experience is called to a halt when the prosecution (Michael Gwynn, of Hammer's The Revenge of Frankenstein [1958] and The Scars of Dracula [1970]) drops charges against Olderberry, setting the elderly predator free with a tabula rasa that will carry a heavy price for all concerned, when a carefree Jean and a returned Lucille encounter him in the woods.  Aylmer's portrayal of the thus far creeptastic but seemingly confused Olderberry here turns to pure menace, as he pursues the girls into the woods (a Canadian wilderness with a striking resemblance to Black Park, Buckinghamshire, as a well-trained Hammer fan eye can easily glean) with the shambling gait of a Karloffian Frankenstein monster.

The Frankenstein parallels don't end there, as Jean's abandoned bicycle is brought into town (like the dead body of little Maria in James Whale's 1931 expressionistic opus), leading the panicking authorities to whip up a posse of townsfolk, like the villagers wielding torches of yore, to comb the surrounding countryside.  The search, and Olderberry's pursuit of the girls through the forest to a lake and nearby trapper's cabin (the 'cabin in the woods' location of so many deaths in the horror genre) is wonderfully and suspensefully photographed by cinematographer Freddie Francis, with great use of fog filters on the lake sequences.

The dreaded denouement comes with Olderberry being apprehended red-handed over the strangled body of Lucille (ooh, is that a dodgy moral there?  The girl who playfully led Jean to Olderberry's house in the first place, who had presumably 'danced for his candy' before, is the one to die).  The Carters' accusations against the paedo patriarch are vindicated, Clarence Olderberry is taken into custody by the sheriff who can no longer look the other way, and Richard Olderberry is reduced from the threat throwing thuggery of earlier in the film to a hollow man belittled before the townsfolk who had respected his family name to the extent of an omerta.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is an unfairly neglected film, reduced to the status of a curio amongst its more famed Hammer brethren.  But it is a very worthy piece, handling a troubling subject with thoughtfulness and maturity, and certainly worth a look from any who may be seeking a superior slice of sinister.