Written by John Hunter
Directed by Cyril Frankel
Starring Patrick Allen, Gwen Watford, Felix Aylmer, Bill Nagy
US Release Aug. 1960
RT 81 min.
Home Video Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)
Warning: review contains plot spoilers.
In 2016, pedophilia is an uncomfortable subject for a movie. Can you imagine what it would have been like in 1960? Although it was advertised with a sensational tagline (“A Nightmare Manhunt for Maniac Prowler”), the subject in Never Take Candy from a Stranger (aka Never Takes Sweets from a Stranger) was handled with seriousness and respect. It was uncharacteristic of many Hammer films and, in general, was ahead of its time.
Before its opening credits, the screen reads, “This story – like its characters – is fictitious. It takes place in Canada. But it could happen anywhere. And it could be true.” It’s interesting that, if the story could happen anywhere, it takes place in Canada. It’s as if Hammer was distancing the UK from such horror, making sure audiences knew that it didn’t happen there. It’s an ambiguous statement and, like the movie itself, unsettling.
Peter Carter (Patrick Allen) moves to Jamestown to become its high school principal, bringing his wife, Sally (Gwen Watford), and nine-year old daughter, Jean (Janina Faye). One night at home, Jean wakes from a bad dream. Explaining how she stepped on a nail while playing with her friend, Lucille (Frances Green), she reveals she had removed not only her shoes, but all of her clothes, at the request of Clarence Olderberry, Sr. (Felix Aylmer).
Jean doesn’t consciously realize the implications of the incident; she thinks dancing naked for someone she would later call “scary” and “ugly” is a game. However, her father immediately says, “If he touched her, I swear I’ll kill the swine.” There’s some debate among her parents and grandmother, Martha (Alison Leggatt), about what to do, ranging from not wanting the whole town to know, to keeping a sense of proportion, to immediately contacting the police.
When Jean again wakes, this time screaming because she thinks there’s an old man in her closet, Peter races to the police station. It’s here that he first learns the power the Olderberry family holds over the town. Instead of being sympathetic, Captain Hammond (Budd Knapp) tells Peter, “We know better to keep our children away from a house like that.” He’ll subsequently learn that the entire town is aware of Olderberry’s proclivities and that he was even admitted to a sanitarium for a short time.
This is perhaps the most distressing aspect of the movie. When Peter asks someone if anything like this has happened before, the reply is, “Not as compromising as this. Everyone knows he likes children and can’t keep his hands off them.” Women in the beauty shop gossip and say they doesn’t understand why the children were there in the first place. “It’s usually their fault.” Clarence Olderberry Jr. (Bill Nagy) denies that his father would do anything inappropriate and that Jean is lying.
Despite the discouragement, Peter decides to press charges and they end up in court, where Clarence Jr. promises that, if Jean takes the stand, his lawyers “will tear her apart.” When defense counsel (Niall MacGinnis) delivers a doctor’s note saying that Lucille cannot testify and then accuses Jean of having “a diseased imagination,” Peter has no choice but to drop the charges. That’s not good enough for Clarence Jr., who demands that the judge (MacDonald Parke) direct a clear verdict of “not guilty.”
Defeated, literally and figuratively, Peter resigns his post at school. Ironically, the same people who would not support him earlier, now praise him for standing up to the Olderberrys. Even Clarence Jr., who is of course on the school board, won’t accept his resignation. He doesn’t want people to see that he abuses his power and that he can forgive someone who crosses him. Meanwhile, as the Carters are packing boxes to move, Jean and Lucille encounter Clarence Sr. in the woods.
Here, Never Take Candy from a Stranger changes from a somber drama to the suspense thriller it’s advertised to be. Even though we know Clarence Sr. is a sick man, I don’t think we’ve realized yet how physically dangerous he can be. After a tense and emotionally exhausting search for the two children, we quickly learn, and the result packs a mean punch. It’s not a happy ending for at least one of the little girls, but it almost has to happen in order to punish those who preferred earlier to bury their heads in the sand.