I have long been a huge fan of film production company Hammer, though formed in the ’30s it’s undoubtedly best known for its superlative run of Technicolor gothic horror presentations of the ’50s and ’60s. I eagerly devoured repeated TV screenings of late-night creature features like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958) and The Mummy (1959), they were sexy, scary and fun and oozed with Kensington gore.
They introduced me to Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt and were a welcome fixture when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. They may have been salacious and slightly hokey at times, but they certainly knew how to entice me and a host of other young hungry horror kids into their undeniably fascinating cult. The studio knew its audience and what they wanted. So, it’s curious that in 1960 the same company at the height of its powers would choose to make a film, which eschewed the velvet cloak flapping vampire, stalking zombie or werewolf howling at the moon, for an altogether more disturbing kind of monster – that of the child sex abuser. In light of recent high profile court cases like Jeffrey Epstein and the controversies which still seem to hound HRH Prince Andrew, it seems fitting to re-examine Hammer’s most taboo of films, with its themes of power, corruption and paedophilia.
Based on the 1954 play The Pony Trap by Roger Garis, Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960) wouldn’t have exactly seemed like a good fit for Hammer. Though the studio wasn’t exclusively producing horror films – they released a superb selection of thrillers and war films for instance – it wasn’t known for its risk-taking capacity. They worked mainly on already established successful formulas – repeated elements which they knew had worked before – and often posters and promotion would be considered long before a single frame of film was even shot. Though now, thankfully the sexual abuse of children, is a more open subject of discussion and prosecutions of perpetrators more likely, back in the ’60s, it was still a topic best avoided in discussion. The word paedophile was seldom used except in the world of behavioural science or psychiatry, and the notion of the sexual predator was often reduced to the all-encompassing and non-committal ‘dirty old man’. Garis’s play, for instance, was apparently based on an encounter his daughter and friend had had with one such ‘rain coat wearing pervert’. So, it’s difficult to see what Hammer head honcho James ‘I’m not an artist, I’m a businessman’ Carreras was thinking when he agreed to greenlight this ‘message picture’ about such a distinctly ‘sordid’ and ‘distasteful’ subject matter.
I can only say through modern eyes I’m extremely glad he did. Though it bombed at the box office, making it one of the studio’s least successful ventures, partly due to the BBFC’s enforced X-certificate, and the public’s discomfort with such material, it remains a powerful bit of storytelling, a brave critique of the corrupt rich and their insidious habits, whose wealth places them above the law.
When the Carter’s return home, they learn from young Jean about her afternoon with Olderberry and how, amongst other things, he made them dance naked for him. Understandably outraged, Sally decides to inform the authorities and launches a tirade against the town’s lackadaisical attitude about the hidden and not so hidden abuses at the hands of Olderberry. Her frustrations and ours are compounded further by Peter’s initial inaction and the attitude of Jean’s grandmother, Martha, who appears to place the town’s reputation above the safety of her granddaughter, insisting that ‘this isn’t an ordinary crime like burglary or hold-up. This concerns a lot of people. People you have to live with.”
Given the modern knee-jerk anger aimed at any hint of impropriety concerning children now, one of the most shocking aspects of Never is how it reminds us how much the problem of child abuse has become a societal issue only recently. The exposure of celebrity predators like disgraced pop star Gary Glitter AKA Paul Gadd, the late DJ and charity fundraiser Jimmy Saville, or the allegations aimed at Michael Jackson in recent times, have done much to broaden the issue into a national or even international debate, yet for many years, the problem, at least in the hands of the mainstream press, was seldom taken seriously. Take for instance ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman publicly ‘courting’ 13-year-old Mandy Smith when he was 47. This was as recent as 1984. The story made headline news, yet for many, it was treated more as a beery pub joke than a case of possible indecent assault. For a 1960 film to be tackling this subject – one of the most forbidden – in an era where much of cinema was still struggling to acknowledge the physical existence of toilets, let alone the sexual abuse of children, underlines the arguable bravery of such a project.
Director Cyril Frankel, better remembered for bawdy British comedies like School for Scoundrels (1960), military knockabout caper On the Fiddle (1961), and batty supernatural effort The Witches (1966), treats his subject matter seriously and shows a considerable amount of sensitivity. There are of course sensationalist elements – the title screams exploitation and this is a Hammer film after all – but largely this brooding and disturbing take on a difficult subject is handled with level-headedness, honesty and subtlety. Which is not to say this a dry affair. Like many of those early 60s Hammer thrillers, it rattles along, taking as many opportunities as it can to enliven our sense of horror and injustice. The sham court case, which predictably comes out in favour of the millionaire perpetrator rather than the family of the abused girl, is a startlingly prescient cinematic reflection of our current all to the corruptible system, where wealth will often preclude justice.
The movie’s final moments though afford us the most suspense. Spurred on by yet another ‘victory’ in the courts, and emboldened by his seeming immunity from prosecution, the creepily voiceless Olderberry, redoubles his abusive efforts and pursues Jean and Lucille once again. In an excruciatingly close approximation of the silent slasher killers to come, the old man stalks his prey slowly but relentlessly, detestably oozing his now barley contained unhealthy urges. Momentarily, the girls think they’ve escaped in an abandoned boat, but terrifyingly, their hope is cut short when it is revealed that the dingy is still moored to the embankment. The look on Olderberry’s face as he reels his helpless victims back to the shore is oppressively and disquietingly horrific.
The film ends on a more positive note but not without its fair share of tragedy. In a denouement that echoes the real-life Saville case, the community and the authorities acknowledge their culpability way too late and though Olderberry is finally brought to justice, the townsfolk have a dead child on their hands.
Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is quaint and possibly naïve in some respects, in many ways it belongs where it is, in the fuzzy changing landscape between a buttoned-down corseted ’50s and a free love, mini-skirted yet to be experienced future which was only a few years away, but completely unimaginable. The performances are serviceable, more than adequate, but never outstanding and the method of delivery is absolutely of its time, with nary a hint of the kind of the more progressive European stylings that were piquing with the likes of Clouzot, Hitchcock and Bava etc. But, it is a beautifully presented piece, a clean and visually pleasing monochrome snapshot filtered through the ever keen-eyed lens of cinematographer Freddie Francis.
It is also bleak and uncommonly candid about a deeply serious issue, where we are made to think about every parent’s most unthinkable nightmare yet are never manipulated or exploited. Instead, we are drawn into a family tempest that batters through courtroom drama, satire and a nerve-jangling thriller. And while it may never occupy the same space in my heart as the vivid horror dreamscapes of The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), The Reptile (1966) or a host of other more recognisable Hammer favourites, it remains a daring, slightly icky, but no less important piece of work, an oddity at odds with the studios own run of features and the public’s refusal to face up to an all too real problem, which unfortunately isn’t going to go away.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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