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October 10, 2010

Hammer Films Month - Never Take Candy From a Stranger

When I started to look through the Hammer movies I own that I could cover for this month long festival of awesome, there was one title that stuck out from the others.  It didn't stick out because of the cast, the director, or any kind of horror credential - it stuck out because it seemed like an odd departure from anything else I'd ever seen from the great studio.  The film in question was entitled Never Take Candy From a Stranger, and promised to be a "chiller about a small town terrorized by an elderly child molester".  I'm no expert on British culture, but it seems like the film (released in 1960) jumped the gun for addressing these kind of topics by a couple of decades.

Produced on the cheap in black-and-white, Never Take Candy From a Stranger is pretty straight forward as a dramatic thriller, leaving any supernatural or science-fiction trappings out of the mix.  The film opens with a brief message that reminds the viewer that this story - set in Eastern Canada - is completely fictional, but could happen in any town in the world.  I would imagine that the choice to set the film in Canada (despite the fact it was filmed entirely in England) was a way to control controversy over the topic with native audiences.  If British or American viewers got too worked up over the insinuation that molestation may be occurring in their town, they could always shrug it off and blame Canada.
Though the film's tagline promises that you will "See a little girl molested!", there's no on-screen representation of the acts that set our plot in motion.  The film begins with two young girls playing in a wooded area.  Jean is new to town, her father having just become the Principal at the local school, while Lucille is a life-long resident.  When Jean realizes she's lost the purse that holds her candy money (a whopping 35 cents!), Lucille reassures her that she knows a place where they can get a lot of candy for free.  The camera pans to a secluded hillside manor, and a title card reminds us that the children have stepped into stranger danger territory.

We don't see the crime committed, but spend most of the film dealing with the aftermath.  Jean's parents are shaken badly by her report that the old man asked the girls to dance without their clothes on, and struggle to cope with the situation.  The film represents their cycle of emotions well, starting with the father's rage, the mother's confusion and insistence on holding the perp accountable, and Jean's grandmother's old-fashioned insistence that they need to just let it go because "no real crime was committed".  Things are further complicated when the parents do raise a complaint, because the old man in question (a silent yet imposing Felix Aylmer) is a valued patriarch of the town.  At one point, a town official even states that "school principals come and go", but this family is an institution.  The struggles to bring light to Jean's troubles lead to a Grisham-esque courtroom scenario, and the film maintains the intrigue of the situation by keeping its hand on the hot-button topic.  Meanwhile, little Jean struggles to deal with the terrors of what she experienced.
The first two acts of the film stick to psychological drama, but the final act brings some strong psychological terror.  The girls are back to playing in the woods, but this time Aylmer's creeper isn't waiting for them; he's bringing the candy to them.  The result is a chase scene across the woods that packs some pretty solid tension, and is followed closely by a good old-fashioned man hunt as the town realizes the girls have gone missing again.  The wrap-up of the film is surprisingly abrupt and dark, but really hammers home the distress of the situation.

Much of the film's power comes from the performances of the young girls, who don't disappoint.  Francis Green's Lucille isn't on-screen a lot, but her character seems to be a focal-point of the film's moral twists.  Janina Faye's Jean, on the other hand, is on-screen for most of the film.  She does a fantastic job of relaying the confusion a youngster would feel in this situation, and I wondered if the filmmakers ever really told her what the movie was about (information that it isn't uncommon to hide from child actors).  Regardless of the filmmakers' tactics, Faye plays the victim marvelously, and makes up for the slightly wooden portrayals of her parents by Gwen Watford and Patrick Allen.  I've mentioned Aylmer a couple of times, but it bears repeating that he is fantastically creepy as the silent villain.  (Also notable, at least to me, is the appearance of Michael Gwynn as the prosecuting lawyer.  Gwynn would go on to appear in a lot of film and TV, but is most memorable to me as Lord Melbury in an episode of Fawlty Towers.)
Never Take Candy From a Stranger (or, Never Take Sweets From a Stranger in the UK) is a well-shot and well-acted dramatic thriller that overcomes a slight script to deal with a controversial issue well.  The film's definitely dated - we've unfortunately seen concerns like this permeate or cinemas and television sets over the years - but it's a notable step in addressing the issue for its time.  This is another atypical Hammer film, but it's one that is pretty relevant and shows off the studio's range of topics.  Never Take Candy From a Stranger will definitely be a Hammer I remember for a long time, because the power of those scenes of the girls running for their lives in the woods won't fade.  Definitely a recommended viewing for anyone who wants to see the studio's take on a real life monster.


venoms5 said...

I've yet to watch this one, Mike, but it sounds good. Have you seen PARANOIAC with Oliver Reed? That's another good Hammer suspenser.

Jinx said...

This one was an odd little departure for Hammer, well, traditional Hammer, but somehow it does still remain very much in keeping with Hammer's style and ethos. It's a terribly long time since I've seen it mind you, so my memory may be a little hazy. I do remember being disappointed by it, but that was probably because there wasn't enough of the expected Hammer monsters and blood for my young taste. Must revisit it now I'm older and (arguably) more sophisicated. Thank goodness for my Hammer box set. Nice one, Mike.

Anonymous said...

I am now 51 years old, and I still remmember the impact that this movie had on me.
It has been many years since I last saw it for a second time and hopefully I will be able to see it again soon - to see if it is as scary as I remmember it to be ?!

Emily said...

I finally saw this one last night, after adding it to my queue when I read your review of it. After having watched it, I definitely agree that it's not a film I'll be forgetting anytime soon. Aylmer was one of the creepiest villains ever- the way he walked toward the girls with that creepy grin- yikes!!! It's one of those films I almost wanted to fast-forward just to get past the almost overwhelming tension it created.