Children become a sweet confection for a sick and twisted man who hides behind his reputation, a festering sore in a diseased community whose only reaction is denial. Cyril Frankel directs this honest and compelling drama concerning the dirty secret and shame of child sexual abuse as it pertains to the social macrocosm and familial microcosm. This is one of the most realistic films concerning this taboo subject that I have ever seen, and in my experience it portrays the emotional trauma of the victims (both parents and children) as it often manifests eschewing dramatic license.
The premise of the film concerns an elderly giant in the community, the founding father Clarence Olderberry, who is accused of offering candy to two little girls in exchange for their undressing and dancing naked for his satisfaction. When the parents of one girl discover this crime, the film follows their trials and tribulations in court and in the community. Considered outsiders, they are shunned and despised not for telling lies…but for having the nerve to file a criminal complaint and upset the status quo of their tiny community. Mr. Olderberry it seems is a dirty secret that is ignored and considered harmless because, well, he has never actually ‘touched” a child. Wow. I wish I could say this attitude is relegated to the past but it taints the minds of current attitudes and mores, a shame that lingers like a creeping malignance in a cancerous society.
The film is raw not with social conscience but human consciousness, with the girl’s parents fighting for justice and living through the brutality of the criminal justice system that allows a nine year old girl to be exposed once again before strangers. The court room scene is dramatically anxious and realistic, as the defense attorney gleefully rapes the victim once again by twisting words and details creating a smothering tsunami of emotions. The defense attorney would not be allowed to ask questions that are speculative, so that line of attack would have been denied by the judge. And make no mistake; this little girl is attacked by counsel even though her story is consistent and true. The absolute power of the narrative is that the girl’s parents believe her and accept her honesty (I wish that were always true). Their reaction is believable as they accept the veracity of her story but weigh the pros and cons of ‘going public”. But their decision to seek justice (not retribution) soon portrays the old pervert (in the mind of the ignorant) as the victim!
Freddie Francis lenses the film with wide angle compositions that create a palpable tension with temporal use of empty spaces and medium shots crowded with accusations. The opening shot is fantastic as the children jump from a tree swing and run towards the mansion where the creepy dude haunts the attic rooms. The triptych composition keeps the tree in focus on one side and the swing framing the other, while the children recede in importance as they run towards the house: this is all shot in deep focus so the children can be seen to disappear, the tree swing representing a solid but vanishing childhood, soon overtaken by the trauma of victimization. Frankel’s solid direction carries the film towards it’s brutal climax, where Francis once again shines with a chase through the woods that ends in an abandoned house, like a mind dirty with the cobwebs of an ugly past. And surprisingly enough, the film is honest and forthright and doesn’t give the audience the happy ending, upsetting expectations with the death of a child. Or more precisely, the sexual assault and murder of a child by a child rapist. This is an important Hammer film that should be recognized as a classic.
Final Grade: (A)