Rather than having a supernatural element, the horror comes from a monster within a small Canadian town’s midst, and the fact that the local people are unwilling to to anything to stop him.
The biggest initial surprise for me was that the villain of the piece is Clarence Olderberry Snr, played by Felix Aylmer, who so memorably portrayed Peter Cushing’s ill-fated father in The Mummy. Then he was vulnerable and in need of care; here he’s a paedophile who pays far too much unsavoury attention to Jean Carter (Janina Faye, who’s instantly recognisable as Tania from Dracula). Aylmer never actually speaks a word, and somehow this makes his character even more sinister. When they discover that Olderberry ordered their daughter and her friend to dance naked for him, Jean’s parents (Patrick Allen and Gwen Watford) try to prosecute him. But Olderberry is a big name in town, and his son (Bela Lugosi lookalike Bill Nagy) makes sure their case fails – although he lives to regret it.
The plot is undoubtedly dated; such a thing would not happen now – instead, those who allegedly commit crimes against children are hounded not shielded, even if any accusations are unsubstantiated. Jean also undergoes another terrifying ordeal when the defence counsel (Niall MacGinniss) mercilessly pulls no punches while cross-examining her in front of a packed courtroom. Again, this would no longer happen because children are now protected in such circumstances – and thank goodness for that.
While Jean is in court, viewers find themselves questioning the actions of her parents. Should they really have put their daughter through such an ordeal – after all, Olderberry, despite his unsavoury behaviour, never actually touched her and seems to have caused no long-term psychological damage? You can imagine that parents in 1960, when the film was released, may have thought long and hard about what course of action, if any, to take in similar circumstances. In fact, Roger Garis, on whom’s play The Pony Cart the film was based, was inspired by an incident involving his own daughter. He wanted to denounce such behaviour as Olderberry’s by bringing it to the public’s attention – and by highlighting Jean’s traumatic spell in the dock, it’s possible he was also attempting to criticise the legal system and the difficulties in bringing paedophiles to justice.
Any doubts about the Carters’ efforts are laid to rest by a chilling and disturbing closing sequence; they are finally proved right, but at a great cost.
Director Cyril Frankel handles the tricky subject matter well, and apparently coached the child actors personally. This approach worked well; Janina Faye is, frankly, superb, often outshining the adults around her, despite being just 11 at the time. Freddie Francis was the director of photography, giving the black and white footage a grainy, newsreel quality rather than something slick and glossy – it’s a good move that gives the entire production a hint of realism.
Never Take Sweets from a Stranger subtly gets under your skin, and despite being dated, is a thought-provoking piece of early 1960s cinema that is still hard-hitting today. Had it been made by another studio, it might now be regarded as a classic. Instead, it’s a curiosity piece that deserves a bigger reputation. Sadly, it’s currently unavailable on DVD in the UK – I had to purchase it as part of the Hammer Icons of Suspense boxset from the US. I will, however, say that it was completely worth it.
Review by Sarah Morgan
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