Sunday, June 29, 2014

Never Take Sweets From A Stranger

Hammer Films, best known for producing low-brow comedies, action movies, and (of course) horror films, made a rare foray into mature drama with this adaptation of Roger Garis’ play THE PONY TRAP.

Titled NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER in the United Kingdom and given a more appropriately American retitling by Columbia Pictures, Cyril Frankel’s film, written for the screen by John Hunter (THE PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER), is a startling, engrossing, intelligent thriller about a monster more horrendous than any other Hammer brought to the screen.

The subject of NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER, as can be surmised from its title, is child molestation. It’s important to note that nobody was making films about pedophilia in 1959, but Hammer sure did, despite James Carreras’ assertion that his company didn’t make “message films.”

Peter Carter (Patrick Allen) and his family move to a small Canadian town where he has been hired as the new principal at the local school. Their lives are almost immediately turned upside down after Peter and Sally’s (Gwen Watford) nine-year-old daughter Jean (Janina Faye) mentions that she and her friend Lucille (Estelle Brody) visited the elderly Clarence Olderberry (Felix Aylmer), who asked the girls to strip naked and dance for him in exchange for candy.

Jean’s parents report the crime to the authorities and are shocked that police captain Hammond (Budd Knapp) suggests they drop the case. The rest of the town rises up against the Carters as well. Not because Jean’s accusations are false—everyone is well aware of the elder Olderberry’s perversions—but because the Olderberrys are rich and powerful and hold the town in its sway, no one is willing to risk the family’s wrath by joining the Carters’ cause.

Part suspense, part courtroom drama, and part social commentary, NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER benefits mightily from Frankel’s sensitive direction, sharp camerawork by future director Freddie Francis (his first job for Hammer), and fine acting by a low-wattage cast, notably sweet little Faye (totally believable), MacDonald Parke as a sympathetic judge, and particularly Aylmer’s silent, creepy turn as a pathetic monster. It doesn’t hold back clear through from the evocative opening titles playing over a shot of a child’s swing right to the gut-punch of an ending. And even though the subject matter could easily have been exploited, Frankel tells a tasteful tale that must have astonished the few people who saw it in 1960. No one left the arthouse with a smile on his or her face.

Being a Hammer production, Black Park turns up as a woodsy location. Casting less-than-familiar faces makes the small-town characters more believable, though Allen (and his wonderfully redolent voice) did become something of a Hammer star (THE DEVIL RIDES OUT). The film wasn’t a hit on either side of the Atlantic, but collected good reviews except from those critics predisposed to dislike Hammer no matter what.

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