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 , Captain Clegg [aka Night Creatures, 1962], The Night of the Big Heat , The Black Adder ) and Sally Carter (Gwen Watford, Cleopatra , Taste the Blood of Dracula , The Ghoul ) 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 , Alien  and Superman III ), 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 , Waterloo Road , The Day of the Triffids ), 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 , Battle Beneath the Earth ) 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 , Merlin in Knights of the Round Table  and the elderly Stephen Banning in Hammer's The Mummy , 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 ) 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  and The Scars of Dracula ) 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.