AVAILABLE ON R1 DVD
RUNNING TIME: 81 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Englishman Peter Carter, his wife Sally, and their nine year old daughter Jean have just moved to a small Canadian town following Peter’s appointment as school principal. One night Jean appears restless and disturbed, and confides to her parents that earlier that day while playing in a local wood, she and her friend, Lucille, went into the house of an elderly man who asked them to remove their clothes and dance naked before him in return for some candy, which they did. Her appalled parents file a complaint but the sceptical police chief warns Peter that the accused man, Clarence Olderberry Sr., is the doyen of the wealthiest, most highly regarded and influential family in town, and the townspeople start to close rank against the newcomers….
Considering that the subject of child abuse was virtually taboo in cinema even by 1960, it’s understandable that Never Take Sweets From A Stranger was pretty much ignored when it came out, but it’s still a great shame, as it’s a pretty fine film and handles its subject matter with intelligence and care while still rightfully making the viewer feel upset and angry, not just at the sexual abuse of children but how those with sufficient pull can corrupt and manipulate the legal system to evade responsibility for their actions. In a way it’s a hard film to pigeonhole as it veers from social commentary to courtroom drama to genuine horror, and even has a twisted fairy tale feel at times, especially in the opening scene where two girls see the top of what almost seems like a magical castle towering above the trees of the woods they are in. The act that sets up the rest of the plot is unseen, while John Hunter’s screenplay, adapted from the play The Pony Trap by Roger Garis, is indeed very much like a play for some of its length what with Cyril Frankel’s static direction and reliance on lengthy dialogue scenes, but, despite some half hearted Canadian accents, the acting comes up trumps – kudos especially to Alison Leggatt as the wise, understanding grandmother and Janina Faye, not long seen as Dracula, as the brave and innocent Jean – and the story exerts a quiet grip which even becomes a little paranoid when it seems nearly everyone in town has connections with the Olderberry family. Eventually we get a courtroom sequence [excellent little parts for Nail McGinnnis, truly loathsome when he tears Jean apart on the witness stand, and Michael Gwynne here] which will really make you angry, and then it all become a full thrown thriller in the final act with much chasing around in Black Park [just before it begun to get laughably familiar in Hammer’s movies].
The direction and cinematography by Freddie Francis get a bit more stylised towards the end, while I suppose that we are eventually in Hammer Horror territory by the final reel, though in a more realistic and disturbing manner. Felix Aylmer’s paedophile is disturbingly effective, though it’s rather unconvincing that this doddery old man can suddenly chase two kids all over the place, and the tale would have maybe been better if the perpetrator had been a young man. Still, while the film can’t help but seem dated because child abuse is much more widely reported now, its attack on communities who would rather push the matter under the carpet then confront the issue, and on corrupt lawyers who are happy to manipulate the truth to get wealthy folks off the hook, still evokes some righteous disgust and indignation. Aided by the first of avant garde composer Elisabeth Lutyen’s eight horror scores which often has a sense of ruined innocence about it, Never Take Sweets From A Stranger can’t help but be one of those films that’s hard to actually enjoy, but it’s generally very well handled, believable, intelligent, and just shows how diverse Hammer were, as well as, much like with The Stranglers Of Bombay, showing some different pathways which Hammer could have gone down but perhaps understandably chose not to.