Fred Burnley, 1972
Starring: Susan Hampshire, Frank Finlay, Michael Petrovitch
An unhappily married woman, Anna (Susan Hampshire of Malpertuis), is taking some time alone to sort out her thoughts about her husband on the isle of Jersey, when she meets the brooding, handsome Hugh (Michael Petrovich of Tales That Witness Madness). They are drawn together and begin an affair, to the dismay of Hugh’s controlling brother George (Frank Findlay of Twisted Nerve and Lifeforce). To get some time alone, they take a short, romantic trip to Scotland, where Hugh suddenly falls dead of a heart attack on the beach. Anna is distraught, but it seems there was some medical mistake, as Hugh returns to her the next day, though he doesn’t seem quite right. As he becomes increasingly distant and strange, Anna begins to wonder if maybe he didn’t really die after all…
Essentially “The Monkey’s Paw” reimagined as a Gothic romance — though it is based on a novel by Gordon Honeycombe — Neither the Sea Nor the Sand once again belongs on the list of films from Tigon that everyone seems to hate but that I really love. It was also sadly one of their last, and is obviously representative of the kind of genre-bending weirdness that is impossible to sell to any kind of mass audience. Much like Doomwatch, it was unfairly marketed as a horror film and I think that’s the cause of much of the vitriol directed at it. For example, in the United States, it was renamed The Exorcism of Hugh and, though there is a scene where his brother declares that exorcism is the only cure for Hugh’s condition and they must go see a priest, throwing that in the title is grossly misleading.
The sole directorial effort from editor Fred Burnley, this strange romance has plenty of horror genre undertones — including some poetic but laughable philosophical musings between the two lovers, a first date in a tomb, and some Gothic trappings surrounding Hugh’s ancient family that are never fully addressed — and while I’ve seen it described as dull or slow-moving, it merely takes its time to develop a story that is at once simple and complex. In general, I dislike films that trip over themselves to deliver an abundance of exposition and explain away every element of the action. Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is absolutely not in any hurry to make rational sense, particularly when it comes to Hugh’s undead state. Burnley and company don’t bother to define or even explain the cause of this state, though it’s hinted that his obsessive love for Anna acts as sort of a supernatural force, one which has compelled him to resist the finality of death.
While I could see some viewers being frustrated with these nonsensical elements, I found them to be oddly satisfying in a dreamy, poetic sort of way, but then I do have a wide berth of tolerance for utter nonsense. There are some genuinely eerie scenes, such as one where the undead Hugh violently does away with someone who attempts to come between he and Anna. The moment is both sudden and unexpected, and does mark a change in Hugh, one where his humanity truly begins to fade and he is introduced to the idea of violence to achieve his sole purpose: to be with Anna. To my dismay, the film sort of skirts around the issue of necrophilia, though there is a scene where a lingerie-clad Anna clearly has sex with a hollow-eyed, mute Hugh.
Granted, the film isn’t perfect. It goes on a bit too long in some parts and would probably have done better as a fifty to sixty-minute made-for-TV film or BBC teleplay. There is some genuinely laughable dialogue, particularly where it concerns Hugh’s brother. In an absolutely hilarious scene (unintentionally so), upon first seeing Hugh, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that Hugh has returned from the dead, explains the whole thing to Anna, blames her in the bitchiest way possible, and then demands that they go see a priest for an exorcism. The only plot element that genuinely bugs me is that fact that the couple travels from a foreboding beach in Jersey to a different foreboding beach in Scotland… and then back.
I’m not sure whether to recommend Neither the Sea Nor the Sand. Anyone who has read Wuthering Heights as many times as I have will probably want to check it out immediately (thank god Anna is not nearly as much of a bitch as Cathy). It’s available on DVD, and I suspect you’re either going to love this film or be totally bored by it. There are elements of Deathdream, Bob Clark’s masterpiece that I deeply love, and the ending — spoiler alert — involves the lovers giving themselves to the sea, sort of like Zuławski’s Mes nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, though admittedly the power of nature is depicted more violently here.