Detour: Never Take Candy From A Stranger


Here’s a quick but ridiculously topical detour from science fiction.  It’s the second film on disc #3 of the Hammer Film Productions Icons of Suspense Collection, which I had because it contained These Are the Damned.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t review it, but in light of the tumultuous events at Penn State and Syracuse, it seems strangely relevant.

1960

Director: Cyril Frankel

Cast: Patrick Allen, Gwen Watford, Felix Aylmer, Alison Leggatt

My rating:  Five Stars (an ordinary rating this time, because it’s not science fiction) for a movie which was simply ahead of its time.  This movie has it all: pedophilia, an attempted cover-up, a courtroom drama, and a terrifying chase.  It gets a little ham-handed toward the end, but then again, Hammer Films is showing us a monster, after all.

Introduction

This film—originally distributed in England as Never Take Sweets From A Stranger—is something of a departure for Hammer Film Productions, based on a play by Roger Garis called The Pony Trap.  It involves real monsters instead of imagined ones.  It was neither a box office nor a critical success, and garnered criticism for breaking a significant public taboo.  It came to public attention again in the 1990s when public interest in the Hammer Film Production catalog grew by leaps and bounds.  In 2010 it was incorporated into a DVD collection called Icons of Suspense…which also includes These Are The Damned…and here we are.

Synopsis

The film opens with two little girls playing on a swing.  One, Jean (Janina Faye) drops her purse, which contains her candy money, and the other little girl, Lucille, tells her friend that she knows where they can get candy for nothing.  The little girls set off toward a mansion where an old man—Clarence Olderberry, Sr. (Felix Aylmer), patriarch of the most powerful family in town—has been watching them with binoculars.

We also meet Jean’s parents, Peter (Patrick Allen) and Sally (Gwen Watford) Carter.  Peter has come to this Canadian town from his home in England to take a job as the school principal.  After meeting many of the important people in town, Peter and Sally return home, where little Jean’s grandmother (Alison Leggatt) is watching Jean.  And that’s when the Carters discover that the senior Olderberry gave the little girls candy to get them to take off their clothes and dance.

From there, the movie proceeds as you might expect: the powerful Olderberrys use their power to protect Clarence Sr., and to demonize the Carters.  The small town closes ranks against the Carters, who nevertheless proceed with a formal legal complaint leading to a trial.  The defense attorney brutally cross examines little Jean, who is both traumatized by the experience and made to look as if she’s untruthful.  The jury returns a verdict of not guilty.

The Carters decide to leave town, and the younger Olderberry, now magnanimous and wanting there to be no hint that he’s used his power in the town in an inappropriate manner, actually threatens Peter Carter with a lawsuit if he doesn’t stay in town.  Peter ignores him, but little Jean goes to meet her friend Lucille one last time, and Clarence Olderberry Sr. finds them in the woods.

A terrifying chase, as well as a frantic attempt to find the missing children, ensues.

Impressions

Director Cyril Frankel did an extraordinary job here.  The film is very well put together, and the parallel aspects of the plotline are woven together with real skill to enhance the tension of the movie.  His direction also gets the most out of his performers, who all do a fine job.

In some ways, Felix Aylmer is the strongest performer in the film.  He was a rather famous English actor who often played priests or clergymen.  Obviously, his performance here is quite different, and he conveys sickness and menace without ever saying a word.  The senior Olderberry is presented as something of a monster, in true Hammer Film style.  He shambles along, never hurrying, and clutches at his head as his mental illness reaches its terrible conclusion—and make no mistake, the senior Olderberry is presented as mentally ill.  But aside from the relatively ham-handed ending, Aylmer’s performance is a subtle and nuanced one.

The Carter adults—Patrick Allen, Gwen Watford and Alison Leggatt—all do a phenomenal job.  The junior Olderberry, played by Bill Nagy, is also amazing, and he actually presents a somewhat sympathetic character in spite of the fact that he’s the true monster in the film.  Finally, the two little girls, Janina Faye and Frances Green, are incredibly believable.  It’s rather hard to believe that little Janina Faye didn’t go on to become an effective performer, and she may have in her native England where her career lasted into the twenty-first century.

The film’s presentation of pedophilia is rather unexpected.  The senior Olderberry is mentally ill; he spent some time in a sanitarium, in fact, and many of the townsfolk are aware of the old man’s predilections.  It seems like the old man can’t quite help himself, and the pattern of his behavior is one of escalation—much like serial killers are perceived today.

If you accept the film’s treatment of pedophilia, the true monster in the film is the junior Olderberry.  He’s aware of his father’s—let’s call them circumstances—and chooses to protect him anyway.  In fact, when his father wants to leave the sanitarium, the junior Olderberry actually enables that, and may have wiped out his records as well.  Family loyalty is all well and good, but sometimes it can go too far.

The ending sequence, in which on the one hand the two little girls flee the old man, and on the other in which the police, accompanied by the junior Olderberry as well as Peter Carter, search for them in the woods, is as suspenseful and riveting as anything I’ve ever seen.  I was on the edge of my seat the entire way, and it truly caps off a well-made film.

Wrap-up

Well, I suppose we all know why I decided to include this entry in the blog, in spite of the fact that it’s not in any way relevant.  I’m talking, of course, about the allegations against coaches at Penn State and at Syracuse involving pedophilia which have rocked the sports world and generated intense public interest in the subject.  It’s probably the only reason I watched what, for me and I suspect for most of us, is a movie embodying a distasteful subject.

Am I glad I watched the movie?  No, not really.  It was amazing how angry it made me, and not so much at the senior Olderberry as at the younger one, as well as the townsfolk who closed ranks against the wrong stranger.

On the other hand, I’m from eastern North Carolina, and I remember the Little Rascals Daycare Center episode, one of the most infamous day care center sex abuse cases, rather well.  If you’re not familiar with it, in that case over ninety children—some after months of intensive therapy by only three therapists who handled all the children’s cases—accused seven adults of conduct ranging from sexual assault to satanist religious rites including sacrifice of babies to hot air balloon trips to being thrown into a school of sharks.  While some of the daycare center operators were convicted, those convictions were overturned on appeal (in part due to legal errors on the part of prosecutors) and ultimately none of the adults were convicted.  The consensus is that the range of allegations against the adults was absolutely impossible.

Sort of sobering, isn’t it?

Make no mistake, though, the movie doesn’t present the same sort of situation as the day care sex abuse hysteria cases.  But it’s worth remembering that not all accusations are true.

In any event, it’s a powerful movie with an astonishing topical relevance.  The movie handles its subject with grace and delicacy, and it evokes strong reactions.  It’s quite good, so if you can get your hands on the movie and have any interest at all in the subject matter, watch it.

Other Takes on Never Take Candy From A Stranger

The Daily Film Dose’s review (though it gets some of the actors wrong)
A particularly well-written and considered review on MovieMorlocks
The Eccentric Cinema review
Believe it or not, a short but good review on Answers.com

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