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Maybe he was just too strong to die?

Neither the Sea Nor the Sand
aka The Exorcism of Hugh
(1972)

(SPOILERS) A Jersey-set (the Channel Island, that is) curio based on actor and news reader Gordon Honeycombe’s first novel, for which he also furnished the screenplay, Neither the Sea Nor the Sand makes for an unlikely zombie movie. Not in the ravenous-for-flesh sense, but the more traditional revivified empty shell. Indeed, going in knowing nothing – provided you haven’t been spoiled by the alternative and misleading title The Exorcism of Hugh – you’d have no inkling that anything supernatural’s in store for almost half the running time. While the sudden shift in genre engenders interest, this is nevertheless a cold, distancing tale, told at a torpid pace, in which it’s difficult to summon much engagement with the main protagonist.

At the outset then, Neither the Sea Nor the Sand takes the form of a so-so, wispy romance, as Susan Hampshire’s unhappily married Anna, visiting Jersey to get away from it all, falls for Michael Petrovitch’s ruggedly self-assured, popular-knitwear-sporting local airport manager Hugh (so local he’s given to announcing “We’re elemental people. Everything must be renewed”, as if he’s in fact living on the Outer Hebrides, while giving her a guided tour of Jersey dolmens; there’s also a diligent but rather laboured smattering of local surnames and community positions).

Uptight brother George (Frank Finlay) doesn’t approve of their relationship, even less so when one of the couple ends up as a walking corpse. Petrovitch (also making his feature debut) looks a little like a young Martin Shaw, but he isn’t exactly the most sympathetic type, so when he drops dead on a Scottish beach – Jersey also doubled for Scotland, including the sequence of Hugh scampering about the Devil’s Hole – it’s more a case of wondering what will fill the second half of the film rather than feeling a terrible loss.

George: He died up there, on that beach in Scotland.

Of course, Hampshire can be something of an acquired taste too, and here she’s just too simpering and drippy in the first instance (while fretting over whether to run off with Hugh) and freaky in the second, when her lover turns into a mobile cadaver and she’s caught engaging in necrophiliac acts (until even she blanches, seemingly at the realisation he really is dead: doh). The process by which he’s reanimated is left unclear – we can assume it’s her extreme grief that does it, as she suggests “My love for him has given him life” – but he’s an uncommunicative sod, unnervingly staring and only occasionally making utterances as a voice in her head.

George: It’s revolting. His flesh is cold, dead. There is no pulse, no heartbeat. His body is rotting. It’s disintegrating, hour by hour, and something must be done.

If Honeycombe and director Fred Burnley (an editor making his feature debut; he died only three years later) had made the couple more relatable, the subsequent events might at least have elicited a degree of sympathy, but we have to conclude that others’ finger pointing isn’t entirely unwarranted (“Well, it’s the lord’s judgement, that’s what it is” comments a prudish housewife of their then still mutually living and breathing affair). Finlay’s good puritanical value in his limited screen time, giving the picture a much-needed boost when he accuses Anna: “He’s possessed, isn’t he? Possessed by you… You’re a witch, trafficking with the devil. You have captured an evil spirit into his dead body”. Even if the dialoguedoesseem more appropriate to a Hammer Horror. There’s a vibe of the uncanny impacting on the everyday that was so effective in the following year’s Don’t Look Now, but with negligible accompanying dramatic tension.

George: Exorcism. The spirit must be exorcised. And then he can rest. Then he can be at peace.

The alternative title comes from George announcing that he will take his brother’s body for exorcism; Hugh tells her “It will be alright, Anna. Don’t stop him” before sending George to his death in a flaming car wreck. She is shown to be silently aware when this occurs, smiling rather chillingly.

Anna: Is this all there is?
Hugh: No. It all begins again out there.

The torrid climax fails to resonate for this reason, as having initially resisted the overtures of her rotting companion, Anna agrees to wade out to sea with him, joining him in death. It might have been poetic, but – despite the insistently ‘70s-dreamy ‘la-la-las’ on Nachum Heiman’s soundtrack – it’s merely dour and dismal.

Of note are some nice – if wintry – shots of the Corbiere Lighthouse and causeway and the presence of Michael Craze (formerly Doctor Who companion Ben) in the supporting cast; he’s apparently drifting aimlessly in search of a subplot, until we realise he’s simply there to bear witness to Anna’s demise. Neither the Sea Nor the Sand is perhaps not a forgotten feature that really merits rediscovery, but it would doubtless gain significantly from its location-rich milieu if the leaden pace didn’t drag it down.


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