Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Never Take Candy From a Stranger

It’s Hammer Time! England’s Hammer Studios is best known for their output of Gothic horror movies, involving Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein and various mummies, werewolves, zombies, and even a reptile woman.

But Hammer made all kinds of movies, and in 1959 they courageously made a film about the greatest monster of all, a child molester. Heady stuff for 1959 and heady material even today.

The film, “Never Take Sweets From a Stranger” (and released in the U.S. in 1960 as “Never Take Candy From a Stranger”) holds up exceptionally well. Unseen for years, this could be one of the most controversial entries in Hammer’s filmography. The film caused considerable angst when it was first released, but time has been very kind to it. It’s gripping viewing today and handles a very touchy subject in a non-exploitative manner. Fortunately, director Cyril Frankel doesn’t give us any scenes of abuse, instead giving us a remarkably frank and tasteful treatment of material that avoids the salacious.

The films opens with two young girls Jean (Janina Faye) and Lucille (Frances Green) playing on a swing. Someone is watching them from a house in the distance. Lucille says she knows where they can get some candy and off they go.

Jean is the daughter of the new small town school principal Peter Carter (Patrick Allen) and wife Sally (Gwen Watford), recently arrived to Canada from England. Jean innocently tells her parents about the house they visited where an old man gave them candy and then asked them to take their clothes off and dance for him.
Understandably upset, the parents learn said old man is Clarence Olderberry Sr. (Felix Aylmer). The Olderberrys are the town’s leading citizens, its founder and principal employer.

Their campaign to bring charges against the elder Olderberry is thwarted by the local police who prefer to turn a blind eye, and by other parents, who don’t want to rock the boat.

Even though the film was one of Hammer’s least commercially successful films, its subject matter naturally generated much controversy.

According to Hammer Films, An Exhaustive Filmography, by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio (McFarland & Company, 1996), the film was endorsed by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who said, “The producers are to be congratulated on their objective presentation.”

The National League of Decency also supported the picture: “This is a perennial social problem treated with moral caution and without sensationalism.”

On the flip side the London Times said, “It must be condemned as a film that never should have been made.”

Films and Filming really took Hammer to task, writing, “A smart production veneer might fool people into thinking that here is a wholly adult film concerned with social and moral problems. It isn’t! In years to come, film historians will no doubt be able to logically explain the success of this company dealing only with the lurid and the loathsome.”

Despite its lack of vampires and other monsters, there are many familiar Hammer friends on hand. This was the first Hammer assignment for cinematographer Freddie Francis. Quite a coup for Hammer, as Francis would win his first Academy Award in 1960 for “Sons and Lovers.” Francis had ambitions to direct, which was quenched by both Hammer and rival studio Amicus in a remarkable series of horror films, including Hammer’s classic “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave” (1968), one of the most beautiful – yes, beautiful – horror movies ever made.

Little Janina Faye, so memorable as Tania in Hammer’s classic “Horror of Dracula” (1958) is very good as the bewildered Jean.
Gwen Watford is perhaps best known to Hammer fans as Geoffrey Keen’s oppressed wife in “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1970) and her mother’s anguish on display here is one of the film’s strengths.

Patrick Allen makes a stalwart father figure, bewildered by a village that doesn’t seem to care there’s a monster living among them. He’s also good in Hammer’s mystery swashbuckler adventure film “Night Creatures” (1962). He only made two films for Hammer, but he went two for two for the studio.

Fans of Harryhausen’s “Jason and the Argonauts” (1963) will be amused to see Hermes (Michael Gwynn) and Zeus (Niall MacGinnis) fight it out here in the courtroom as opposing counsel.

And then there’s Felix Aylmer. When I think of Felix Aylmer I think of his Isaac of York in M-G-M’s wonderful “Ivanhoe” (1952) and as Peter Cushing’s archaeologist father in Hammer’s “The Mummy” (1959). But now I may have to add his Clarence Olderberry Sr. to the list. Aylmer doesn’t speak a word throughout, but it’s still a great performance. He’s borderline senile but that doesn’t make him any less dangerous. Great body language on display here as Aylmer makes him pitiable and loathsome at the same time.

One scene involving Aylmer may be one of the most chilling in Hammer’s history. Towards the end of the movie, Jean and Lucille are riding their bikes in the woods when they spot a house. Naturally curious they go to explore when they see Olderberry coming towards them. Screaming they run away with Olderberry in pursuit. They spot a rowboat in the lake and get in it and begin rowing frantically to the middle of the lake. Unknown to them, the boat is still tied to the dock. Olderberg reaches down to the rope and slowly begins to pull the boat back towards the dock…..

It’s a chilling scene, and the film is as much an indictment of people’s indifference to what’s going on around them as it is Olderberry himself.

The film is a precursor to material that would be tackled on later in the decade and beyond. I wonder if the London Times and Films and Filming would later change their minds about the film?

In 1961, movie audiences were treated to “The Mark”, a really remarkable film starring Stuart Whitman as a convicted child molester who desperately tries to get cured with the help of psychiatrist Rod Steiger. Very rarely shown today, that’s a shame as it also treats its distasteful matter in an adult and non-sensationalistic manner. Stuart Whitman gives an Academy Award-caliber performance here. Any list of criminally underrated performances should include Whitman’s performance.

And any list of underrated films should include Hammer’s “Never Take Candy From a Stranger.” It may have lost money for the studio, but they have every right to be proud of this remarkable little film. Besides, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were always around to pick up the slack for them.

“Never Take Candy From a Stranger” is the second of six films I’ve watched in the DVD collection titled “The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films.” Wonderful transfers of wonderful films. Four more to go and I can’t wait to watch them. Looking forward to Joseph Losey’s “These Are the Damned” (1961), one of the most remarkable science fiction films of the 1960s.


ClassicBecky said...

Kevin, I love Hammer films, but have never seen nor heard of this one. It sounds like it is done in a horrifying manner, chilling because of both the molester and the reactions of townspeople in shutting their eyes. I would love to see this one.

I can see why it was controverial. It doesn't sound sensationalistic to me, though, from your description. Now, Reefer Madness and Sex Madness from the 30's were really sensationalistic films masquerading as educational.

Very interesting review that I intend to follow up on by finding this movie.

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, a great treatment of a film I watched a few months ago. What I found curious is that even with this subject, the film still stayed close to a familiar Hammer formula: People move to a new town/village. Something strange involving the local squire is going on. The newcomers try to expose it but find that although everyone is aware of it, there is a conspiracy of silence among the villagers. There is even a "monster" in the form of Olderberry Sr. In the scenes with him silently shuffling through the forest while pursuing the girls, he might be Frankenstein's monster. Hope you enjoy "The Damned." I think you have a real treat in store.

Classicfilmboy said...

I'm learning so much from this post about Hammer films, the players and this particular film itself. Thank you for sharing! I'll have to look for it.

Kevin Deany said...

R.D., that's a very interesting comparison to Olderberry and a classic movie monster. I hadn't thought of that, but you are correct.

Becky and Brian, I do hope you get a chance to see it some day.

Thank you everyone for commenting.

Rick29 said...

Kevin, when I saw you had reviewed this film (part of the Hammer Icons of Suspense set), I watched my DVD for the first time last night. It was a riveting film and exceptionally well-made. Shot right outside Hammer's Bray Studios in England, I was convinced the story took place in a small Canadian town. The performances were all strong, especially Gwen as the mother. But I was most impressed by Cyril Frankel's direction, with two scenes standing out. The first is when Jean casually mentions to her parents and grandmother what happened at the house. The second is when attorney Niall McGinnis (a favorite since CURSE OF THE DEMON) cross-examines Jean. At one point, the camera settles on the little girl's face, as McGinnis moves aggressively into the frame from the left, moves out of the frame, and then juts back in from the right. It's unsettling and disruptive, which, of course, is exactly the effect he wants to have on little Jean. As you said, Freddie Francis' photography is first-rate, especially during the run through the woods and the scene at the lake. First-rate review, Kevin, of a vastly under-appreciated and still highly effective film. Well-done!

Grand Old Movies said...

Thanks for your excellent post - I haven't seen/heard of this film, tho I know Hammer did branch out more in the 1950s (it seemed to settle into horror mode definitely in the 60s). What a change of pace role for sweet old Felix Aylmer! I don't think I'll be able to watch his other performances again in quite the same way.