Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Film Review: NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE SAND (1972, Fred Burnley)

Stars: 3.8 of 5.
Running Time: 96 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew:  Starring Susan Hampshire (LIVING FREE, THE LEGEND OF DOOM HOUSE), Frank Finlay (LIFEFORCE, THE PIANIST), Michael Petrovich (TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS, ESCAPE 2000), Michael Craze (DOCTOR WHO, SATAN'S SLAVE), David Garth (SUPERMAN IV).  Cinematography by David Muir (GIRLY, AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT).  Based on the novel by Gordon Honeycombe.
Tag-line: "A bizarre story of love, life, and death."
Best one-liner:  Not really that kind of movie.

Readers of this site know of my obsession with "melancholy horror," the designation I gave to a sub-genre of mostly 1970s films that are incredibly atmospheric and just as likely to depress you as they are to scare you.  The seaside is a melancholy horror standby (THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE, DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS, THE FOG, DEAD AND BURIED, many stories by H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James, et al.), as it's a site of desolate beauty and primal, existential mystery.  The mood practically builds itself: the crashing of waves, the calling of the seagulls, the overcast skies, the hands thrust in overcoat pockets, the windblown hair...
Now, every once in a while, I like to venture up the coast and spend the weekend in a fishing village.  I always go in winter, and that's a matter of personal preference; I'd much rather spend time on an barren, snow-covered beach than a crowded, sunbeaten one.
Having received a heartfelt, anonymous endorsement of NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE SAND from a reader last fall, I figured that the perfect ending to the day would be to have a glass of brandy outdoors in the cold ocean breeze, and then to watch the film before retiring.  It was a fine choice!

Atmospherically, NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE SAND is brilliant; David Muir's cinematography capturing that primal, existential mystery of the ocean that I alluded to earlier.

Neither the sea nor the sand?  Well, I'm happy to report that there's a hell of a lot of sea and sand in this movie, and that's a big part of why I like it.
There's also a nice, haunting, Morricone-esque score by Nachum Heiman that goes a long way toward establishing the proper ambience.

NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE SAND is primarily a love story, albeit a tragic and occasionally ghoulish one.  On the beaches of Jersey (no, not New Jersey), Anna (Susan Hampshire) and Hugh (Michael Petrovich) begin a whirlwind romance, the sort that feels oddly natural because they're both brooding, solitary-types.
For a long time, it feels simply like a mildly gloomy seaside romance, and you nearly forget that you're watching what is ostensibly a "horror film."  Not wanting to spoil the plot, I'll say that it soon thereafter takes a hard turn into territory usually mined by say, NIGHT GALLERY or TALES FROM THE CRYPT.  There's a little "Monkey's Paw" in there, and a little Lucio Fulci-style filmmaking, too, which leads me to my next point.

NEITHER THE SEA NOR THE SAND is a much-maligned film, and while I did enjoy it, at times I could see why it has been beset by this reputation.  It's fairly uneven in tone, which becomes most laughably apparent in a bicycle montage that jarringly switches out the somber music to which we've grown accustomed with an unrepentantly zany tune that would be more at home in perhaps a Benny Hill sketch or a 70s gum commercial.  (Inexplicably, the Image DVD chooses this music to accompany its main menu!)

Then there's the matter of some bordering-on-soft-core love scenes that go on for a touch too long and silly melodramatic dialogue like "Is this more than an affair?... it's a love affair!" Also,  the supernatural "rules" of the film's universe seem arbitrary and needlessly cryptic, which can sometimes result in the kind of pretentious Euro-camp that is best left to Lucio Fulci.

All that being said, those drawbacks are certainly not deal-breakers, and the film overcomes its imperfections to build to a poetic, doleful finale that is pure melancholy horror.

Also, we have David Garth and Betty Duncan as a fantastic, bickering Scottish couple,

the prolific character actor Frank Finlay (who here sort of looks like a young David Warner) as Hugh's mincing, weirdo brother,

and, hey, they even manage to work in a van explosion.

In the end, NEITHER THE SEA NOR SAND is an emotional, intriguing misfit of 70s horror, like a  battered, hand-carved fisherman figurine collecting dust at the far end of a curio shelf, out-peacocked by the more colorful knick-knacks, but retaining a certain, rare, grim dignity.  Nearly four stars.

–Sean Gill


AnonyMike said...

Greetings, it's me, 'anonymous' (but you can actually call me Mike), who recommended this little flick to you. Very glad to hear you enjoyed it (or at least as much as anyone can who's not from where it was filmed since I have added novelty excitement with every scene exclaiming in my head with every scene "been there!", "know where that is!" and "wow it looks so different now!"). Funnily enough the Scottish house they stay in (the film was entirely shot here, that's still Jersey) I completely unknowingly visited last summer with my son, it's a historically-protected building and they did a farmhouse open-day there and we went to see their animals. Only afterwards did I realise we were in the creepy old cottage where part of this film was shot.

Interestingly enough on the UK DVD, the menu screen has the main haunting melody on loop over the sound of crashing waves and seagulls, far more up your street I expect. Someone was obviously bored at work if they decided to program the US DVD with the godawful cycling montage music. It's always nice to discover that a film's own distribution company tends to sabotage its own critical reception further with such stupidity (for example the UK release for the low budget but quite enjoyable retro sci-fi film Hunter Prey is a ghastly Sci-Fi Channel-esque photoshop cover that only serves to make it look like a cheap piece of shit, whilst the original poster art is a beautiful 1970's solarised picture of one of the Boba Fett-esque helmets beneath a crosshair which more accurately captures the vintage character-based sci-fi stylings the film has to offer).

Another interesting thing about Neither The Sea Nor the Sand is it actually attempts to promote some local Jersey life. They mention centeniers (, use a local sir-name (De La Mare - strangely pronounced wrong at the end of the film, though correctly at the beginning; it's correct pronunciation is 'marr' not 'mair') and even acknowledge the Jersey accident (quite horribly though, anyone local will cringe at the attempt "you mean I sound like an Englishman?") - which whilst clumsy in their inclusion are still wonderfully heartwarming elements to someone from here. It makes you truly feel Jersey's the desired setting, that it's a character too, that it wasn't some random location they found and decided to set up cameras here (and I don't know if it was intentional but the islands here have a big history with black magic and witchcraft, something also explored in the low-budget New Zealand horror, The Devil's Rock). The Others with Nicole Kidman was also set here... but shot in Spain. And you can really tell.

(Continued below...)

AnonyMike said...

... and the conclusion:

Ironically our biggest media export, the regional detective series, Bergerac, which whilst filmed & set here and based entirely around our police force (though a fictional division of it), never once featured the honorary police, local names or the local accent.

Neither The Sea Nor The Sand was also a LOT more accurate in its location changes, the roads and directions taken largely lead to where the next scene does actually take place (though the walk to the market would have been around 10-12 miles there and back... hope she took a bus). Bergerac again, was disgraceful in this manner; scenic roads to film on suddenly lead to complete opposite parts of the island.

But here's me, a Jerseyman giving you a bunch of useless local trivia about it that I'm sure you don't care about haha. Thanks again for reviewing it, read it on Wednesday when you posted it up, which funnily enough was my birthday (how strangely coincidental), but have been too busy to reply and thank you. Anyway, once again, glad you liked the film.

And what do you reckon, did she have sex with him after the incident with the van? It's heavily implied, but could he? He's rather statuesque most of the time but out of nowhere found the gumption to leap from the van, did he then have enough spirit in him to give her a right good bit of necrophilic rodgering thereafter? We may never know... (unless we read the book I guess).

AnonyMike said...

Damn the lack of an edit button, that should be 'local accent' not 'local accident' among the other spelling mistakes I posted. I hate seeing I've cocked up the English language, ugh...

Sean Gill said...


Very glad you enjoyed. I'm in the same boat with STREET TRASH, a horror film that was shot entirely in my old neighborhood of Greenpoint in Brooklyn– every scene is peppered with my exclamations of "Damn, I know right where that is!" I think everybody deserves such a film.

I did not realize that NTSNTS was shot entirely in Jersey; not knowing any better, I assumed the Scottish parts were shot in Scotland. Jersey is rather beautiful and well-captured by this film. I've always been drawn to the places like it that we have in the States, along and off the coast of the Eastern seaboard, in New England and Maine and at the far end of Long Island.

It did intrigue me about Jersey, and I thank you for your comments here- I had always assumed it was an immediate part of the UK and didn't realize the complexities of its government or the local traditions. Also, I'd forgotten that THE OTHERS took place there– though it's a film that I enjoy, its atmosphere doesn't quite match the grand seaside horrors of something like NTSNTS or American West Coast-shot films like THE FOG or DEAD & BURIED.

Also, how weird that the post appeared on your birthday- some strange melancholy horror film gods must be at work!

And I feel like the "necrophilic rodgering" (ha!) is indeed implied, but like most of Hugh's postmortem activity, the specifics are fairly mysterious (i.e., he grows quite pallid and his eyes turn a hazy black, but he doesn't decay in the customary fashion).

Anyway, thank you for the recommendation- I'll have to check out CTHULU at some point, too, though I may save it for my next seaside weekend.

AnonymMike said...

Well if you're interested, I'm going to go around and take photos of a few of the places from this film and compare them to how they were 41 years ago (I expect I'll be the only person in the entire world having done this haha). I've already taken photos of the two main houses - they've hardly changed a bit aside from the trees, the fact that it's still miserably cold here helps recapture the mood of the film since the sky is grey, the wind is cold and the trees are all lifeless. I know you're thousands of miles from here so this isn't some weird "look at where I live, it was in a weird little movie once! LOOK AT IT!" creepy demand, just something I'm kind of curious about myself (probably triggered by when I took my son to the 'Scottish' house without even realising it) and wanting to see for myself. Some things I won't photograph, the airport for example is so radically different and redeveloped it would be ridiculous to even bother (I have no idea if the bar they were in is even still a room for example), but many other scenes are quite impressive in their similarities to present day (helps that they stuck to historic buildings). So if you are in anyway intrigued, I'll post a link to them once I've finished!

As for the film, yes indeed his undead nature is bizarre. From barely moving and not talking, to simple statements of love via telepathy, to leaping from a speeding van over a cliff, to presumably necrophilia, to black eyes and violence, Hugh's behaviour has no logical development. I've always taken it that his telepathy did more than speak to her but actually twisted her mind, which I hope is the case and she doesn't suddenly go "I need to go be undead with him" just because she missed him... straight after he tried to beat her door down.

And strangely his eyes reverted to normal after turning black, shame because that was a beautifully sinister piece of minimal makeup that I think deserved to be more widely used that slightly grubby skin. One of these days I'll track down the book, it's meant to be much better and hopefully has a far more concrete idea of its supernatural elements. Still might watch it again soon, feeling a bit fed up, the weather's vile and feeling far too single, somehow this film makes me feel a bit better about myself during these moments haha.

Sean Gill said...


I'd definitely be interested in seeing what those places look like today. And, yeah, I felt like the black eyes were underused, too.
Let me know what you think if you ever check out the novel; poking around the internet a bit, it seems like people like it.

AnonyMike said...

Well, I only ever ended up taking two photos, of the two featured houses, which you should be able to see have barely changed. Hugh's house has a less nice garden these days, whilst the farm house (in "Scotland") is basically identical give or take a tree here and there, given that it's a historically protected building.

I'd have taken more, but as a working single dad, I'm literally always on the go and just never got round to location scouting all the other places. If you google image 'devil's hole jersey', 'el tico jersey' and 'Corbiere lighthouse jersey' you'll find three of the other notable filming locations.

One day I'll try and do the rest with side by sides, but for now here's two. And you're not ever getting the cinema. Since that was demolished 40 years ago haha.

Sean Gill said...

Very cool, Mike– thanks for sharing your findings. It looks just as ready for melancholy horror as it ever did!