Early Hammer Horror film Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is a dark, terrifying examination of the horrors of pedophilia
Before their brand became synonymous with Gothic horror fantasies dripping with promises of Freudian sex and death, Hammer Films steadily pumped out a series of quality British melodramas, mysteries and Hitchcockian thrillers, most of them produced economically in black and white and exported internationally by major studios with little fanfare. But in circling back on these early curiosities — many of which were produced well into the early 1960s — one can find some remarkable motion pictures, many of which are bold, daring and way ahead of their time.
Among the most alarming of that lot is director Cyril Frankel’s Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (re-titled Never Take Candy from a Stranger for its U.S. release), a jet-black and shocking thriller (based on the play The Pony Trap by Roger Garis) and a film that, despite its vintage, nevertheless packs a wallop. It’s a movie whose dismal truths about how the powerful buy silence and how children must suffer the sins of their elders tragically and endlessly. And it doesn’t go down easy.
Nine-year-old Jean (Janina Faye, from Hammer’s Horror of Dracula) has just moved to small town in Ontario, Canada with her parents Peter (Patrick Allen) and Sally (Gwen Watford), after dear Dad accepts a prominent position as the new principal of the local school. One day while playing with her new friend Lucille, the pair wander off to the manor of the town’s most powerful family, the Olderberrys, when Lucille confides that the old man who lives there will give them free candy. When Jean comes home that night, she rather matter-of-factly tells her parents that the skeezy Mr. Olderberry (Felix Aylmer, who is chilling) did indeed ply them with sweets in exchange for the young girls to remove their clothes and dance naked for them. Peter and Sally are horrified and, later that night when Jean wakes up screaming from a nightmare, mom and dad decide to action.
But as they soon learn, the town is rather adept at keeping its secrets safe. After relaying the tale to some prominent school officials, Peter gleans that people are aware of Mr. Olderberry’s pedophiliac leaning and there have been previous “incidents,” but everyone has turned a blind eye. Peter presses charges even though he’s warned of social isolation and worse if he proceeds. When the old man’s son, Clarence Olderberry Jr. (Bill Nagy), shows up to their home and urges them to drop the charges, Peter and Sally refuse and the younger man swears to decimate the little girl on the stands in the inevitable trial. Soon little Jean is ostracized from her peers, the family is persecuted and, when the old man is revoltingly cleared of his crimes by a crooked jury, they opt to leave the dour little hamlet. But they soon learn that the outrage they’ve endured is only the catalyst to the horror to come.
To call Never Take Sweets from a Stranger a horror film may seem like stretch, but it’s really not. There are no vampires, ghouls or werewolves running around this picture, rather the threat is fear and ignorance, the monster is power and privilege and the poison at its core is one human being’s psychotic addiction to sexually abusing and murdering children. The latter element? Well, I can think of few things more horrifying. As adults, we find novel ways to mess up our lives and the lives of others. But we keep making more of us in hopes of creating better versions of ourselves, successors who will hopefully learn from us, from our triumphs and errors. It’s a universal, biological law that we are here to protect children, to nurture them and show them the beauty in the world before adulthood begins to chip away at the perception of the purity of that beauty. And when an adult ends up willingly breaking that law, it’s unforgivable.
Director Frankel would later go on the helm Hammer’s supernatural drama The Witches and that’s a strong film. This one is stronger. Frankel allows the literacy of the stage play drive the film and fleshes out the dialogue-heavy drama with many nightmarish sequences of children in jeopardy. It’s like a British “social issues” version of Night of the Hunter in some respects, with children targeted by those they are told to trust and it’s a theme that marked many of these early Hammer thrillers, movies like the equally mesmerizing (if more conventional) evil parent shocker The Snorkel. And Hammer legend and Oscar-winning DP Freddie Francis brings an almost fairy tale beauty to much of the outdoor sequences, especially the scenes of the children fleeing for their lives.
Still toiling in relative obscurity, those who have experienced Never Take Sweets from a Stranger sing of its praises and with good reason. It’s a dark, uncompromising film, serious, smart and wildly upsetting. Seek it out…