Who will believe the new little girl when she claims a town elder has been inappropriate with her?
I watched Prisoners recently, the excellent, intense Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhall movie about two families whose daughters go missing. Jackman turns vigilante when he feels the police aren’t doing enough or focusing on the right suspects. Around the time I watched Prisoners, TCM aired this Hammer drama (also known as Never Take Candy from a Stranger) which tackles a similar subject, so it had me wondering just how differently the same matter would be approached in 1960. Of course Hammer, well on their way at that time to becoming horror central had done many dramas before, so a heavy and forward-looking melodrama wasn’t out of their wheelhouse. By the same token, though, what scarier monster is there than a child molester? As it turns out, some carefully placed horror movie elements and approaches, along with the gorgeous and moody cinematography and the fine acting befitting a serious tale, make this film all the more realistically creepy and terrifying.
Written by John Hunter (last seen at this blog as writer of The Pirates of Blood River), and based on the play The Pony Trap, Never Take Sweets starts with a contented Patrick Allen, settling into a cushy new job as a school principal in Canada, and getting acquainted with the nice folks in the new workplace and neighbourhood who welcome him, his wife Gwen Watford and daughter Janina Faye. When their little girl is out playing in the woods with her new friend, they are offered candy by one of the town’s founding and best known citizens, a senior played by Felix Aylmer. He invites them in to his place and, as Faye later recounts to her parents’ horror and revulsion, he asks them to take their clothes off and dance so they can get some more candy.
Director Cyril Frankel (The Devil’s Own) handles it all so deftly, there’s not one false note. Though the viewer doesn’t see the incident there’s very little doubt of the girl’s honesty, and your skin crawls since we’ve already seen the old man watching the girls through his binocs. Aylmer does a good job here, never once speaking in the movie but conveying so much, able to be both disgusting and also convincingly dotty and sympathetic. The parents wrestle with what to do, who to tell, how much is true? When they go to the authorities, they begin to see that things like this have happened here before, that Aylmer’s son, played by Bill Nagy, will threaten and destroy their daughter if this goes too far, that the daughter’s friend is no good as a witness because her father won’t let her testify to anything, and that the police are reluctant to rock the boat because the “Olderberry” family has such sway in town, and anyway everyone kind of knows and accepts that the old man is weird, so what’s the big deal.
But Allen and Watford forge ahead, because it’s the right thing to do. The court case predictably sees their child taken apart on cross examination, and reluctantly the charge is dropped. The family is basically ostracized, and faces some tough decisions about their future in this town. Then one day, when the two little girls are walking through the forest far from any help, they are stopped by the now far creepier Aylmer, who chases them deep into the woods like a nightmarish monster, while the town finds an abandoned bicycle, launches a full search party, and discovers a truth too horrible to believe.
It’s pretty brutal and difficult stuff for 1960. Predictably it goes through some discussions that would’ve been groundbreaking then but sound dated to us, like what and what isn’t acceptable behaviour, how far is too far, what can be treated, what can be punished and so forth. But none of that stands in the way of this being an intense and well made drama, one given extra impact and a lasting, to our eyes modern, look by its many stunning shots and understated acting. As a result, it’s interesting just how much Never Take Sweets from a Stranger and Prisoners, movies separated by 53 years, have in common. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Allen are characters cut from the same cloth, even if Allen doesn’t take matters into his own hands in this story you sure believe he could, just from his Stanley Baker-ish looks and intensity. They’re fathers shaken to their core, desperate, frustrated and boiling over at what they see as the ineffectiveness of the law. The movies present a similar picture of two families faced with missing children, similar excuses made by the suspect’s relatives, out of shame, disbelief and/or protectiveness, and the same cautionary part of the tale of the repeat offender given freedom by inadequate evidence, silence and injustice to keep on molesting and eventually murdering. It goes to show how a well filmed story is a timeless thing, and can skillfully bring the most sensitive subjects to attention.