Thursday, November 06, 2008

Movies: Nor rigor mortis, for that matter.

What do you do with a flick that is really trying its damnedest, but just doesn't pack the skill and talent needed to fulfill its worthwhile ambitions? On one hand, you want to credit the filmmakers for having admirable goals and going for them. But, on the other hand, a failure is a failure.

I bring up this particular reviewer dilemma because today's flick, Fred Burnley's 1972 gothic romance Neither the Sea Nor the Sand, lives smack dab at the unfortunate intersection of Good Ideas Avenue and Unfortunate Execution Boulevard. There is a lot to enjoy and think about in Burnley's somber, adult (in the sense of complex and mature, rather than graphic), and moody dark fantasy of love and loss. Unfortunately, there's also plenty of bad filmmaking, painfully wooden acting, trite dialogue, and sometimes cringe-inducing amateurness that, in the end, it is pretty much a toss up whether or not the flick is worth anybody's time.

Faced with this dilemma, I'm just going hip you to what you can expect and I'll leave the call up to you.

Neither the Sea is the film adaptation of the gothic romance of the same title by Gordon Honeycomb, who also provided the screenplay. The flick follows the tragic amatory career of Anna, a young married woman who heads to the forlorn Isle of Jersey on what the viewer must assume is some sort of separate vacations arrangement. She falls for the handsome, if sullen and slightly pretentious, lighthouse keeper Hugh. Despite her vows, Anna falls hard for the darkly attractive man and, before you can say "still, we're thinking of giving it a second chance," life is all playful montages and soft-focus sex scenes so tasteful that the one stray nipple that appears ever-so-briefly might have been an accident.

Sadly for our illicit little lovebirds all is not well in paradise. First, there's Hugh's brother, the mommy-obsessed, anal-retentive, effete, antiques collector who finds women repulsive. He doesn't take much of a shine to Anna what with her having a va-jay-jay and, therefore, being among the some 50% of the population he sees no practical use for. Second, there's the freak heart attack Hugh suffers on a weekend jaunt with Anna to Scotland that leaves him dead.

Death is normally enough to end your standard whirlwind-grade extramarital affair, but we're not talking about some piece of convenient extracurricular action you toss over the side just because they've stopped metabolizing. Anna's love for Hugh is so strong that it actually brings him back from the dead – and very almost as good as new.

Fleeing the legal and medical officials who would be all caught up in the "but you're dead" thing, Anna and Zombie Hugh head back to the Isle of Jersey. However, as unhappy as Sister George was with Anna crashing at the home, he's even less receptive to the idea of Zombie Hugh hanging around. George attempts an exorcism – gay men, like blacks and children, have a special connection to the supernatural and not only immediately believe in the undead, but can also get you an really stellar exorcist, even on the weekends – but is dispatched by his respiration-challenged brother. (Though the film seems to suggest, at least to this viewer, that Hugh's violence was actually inspired by the will of Anna, making Hugh something not unlike a traditional West Indian zombie in the thrall of another's will.)

After forcibly depositing Sister George at the bottom of a rather large cliff, Anna and Hugh are in the clear. If they can find some way to arrest Hugh's ever advancing state of decay, stop Hugh from wandering into the ocean (which is apparently what zombies from the Isle of Jersey do – they're the lemmings of the zombie world), and avoid the snooping of Hugh's old buddies, then Anna and Hugh should live happily ever after.

Can a mixed-up, still-married woman on the rebound really find true love with a re-animated corpse? How long before cellular decay puts the kibosh on their ever so tasteful sex life? And, most importantly, will they raise their children as Anglicans or zombies? Though only two of these burning questions are finally answered in the film, the conclusion is a suitably definitive cap to Anna and Hugh's doomed love.

Not really a straight out horror flick, Neither the Sea reminds me somewhat of the more recent French pseudo-zombie pic They Came Back. In both films, the undead are less a source of danger than they are an unsettling personification of the inability to let go of the past. This isn't about fear of the uncanny but the melancholy longing of those left behind. But where the latter film interwove the stories of an entire town, the former is a more much intensely personal thing. Despite some obvious parallels – the dead in both films don't eat people, are nearly mute, and seem to always be distracted - Neither the Sea seems to me to be slightly less sympathetic towards Anna than TCB was to the town's people. There are several hints that the love between Anna is Hugh is more passionate than enduring and that the dead Hugh isn't her lover returned, but something more akin to a marionette acting out the selfish needs of Anna. These hints never form an explicit theme in the film, but I think they are there and they are interesting.

Visually, the flick's a mixed bag. Burnley seems like a director who is less capable of creating beauty than he is at finding it and getting the heck out of the way. The film benefits greatly whenever Burnley takes the camera outdoors and sets his action against the rough-hewn beauty of the rocky Jersey coastline. These shots, which capture a truly breathtaking landscape, are really gorgeous. Inside, however, set-ups alternate between haphazard indifference and overly staged fussiness. You get the feeling that the director either just told his actors to nail their lines and move on or he decided that a scene needed to be drowned in soft-focus "sensuality." The characterization and plotting are equally Jekyll-and-Hyde. The characters themselves have hints of life you don't quite see fully played out, giving you the feel that there's more going on in their heads than you're seeing, but the acting is stiff and serious as to lapse into silliness. The plot, as well, skirts some interesting twists and surprises, but the pacing, especially for the first half hour, is relentlessly plodding. None of this is helped by the music which though it was composed for the flick, is as intrusive and often ill-fitting as the worst sort of needle-dropping.

So there you go. That's the good and the bad of it. I can lead you no further. We're like Yoda and Luke on Dagobah: you're taller than me and, ultimately, only you can decide your fate.

But don't, you know, agonize over the choice or anything. It isn't a life or death thing, mang. It's only like 96 minutes long and you can always turn it off. Shesh. You big drama queen.


Sasquatchan said...

Why do I think there are some awful "leper/prostitute" jokes hidden in this post ?

I want to make a connection to another 70's horror movie with wooden acting, The Shining, but it really doesn't relate well.. (The wood was Duvall and the kid, Jack did a great job..)

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

I don't know. There's plenty of emotive acting in Rosemary's Baby, Omen, and Amityville. And there's nothing method about the Leatherface clan.

I think it is more a lousy acting thing than an era tag.