Written and Directed by Curtis Harrington
Produced by Aram Katarian
Music: David Raskin
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Linda Lawson, Marjorie Eaton, Gavin Muir, Luana Anders
Running time: 84 minutes
Also Known As: No alternative titles
Sailor Johnny Drake strikes up a relationship with the mysterious Mora, a woman who performs as a mermaid in a Santa Monica sideshow… but could she be the real thing?
Featuring a gauche though engaging performance by a young Dennis Hopper as a naïve sailor on shore leave, Night Tide is a weird tale of enchantment and mysterious forces from the unknown depths of the sea. In the end, the film refuses to choose between the reality of Mora’s status as a mermaid or an “all in the mind” conclusion, leaving the viewer to make of it what they will.
It’s the weirdly off-kilter atmosphere that causes the curious viewer to stick with Night Tide, writer-director Curtis Harrington’s debut film. Although made in 1961 and not widely released until 1963, the film feels like it is firmly set in the world of the 1950s, featuring beatnik coffee bars and dancing on the beach with gay abandon to the hypnotic rhythms of bongo drums.
A series of oddball characters populate this weird world, yet not all of them are significant. Mora is pursued by a weird older woman, a seeming water witch, who talks gibberish to her (played by Marjorie Cameron, one time partner of occult rocket scientist Jack Parsons, and an acolyte of Aleister Crowley). The mermaid sideshow attraction is run by salty old English seafarer Captain Murdock, who tells stories of his discovery of Mora on a lost island. A neighbouring attraction — a classical merry-go-round — is run by a father and daughter team who hint at dark secrets in Mora’s past.
And then there’s psychic fortune-teller (though don’t call her that to her face!) Madame Romanovich, who produces the Hanged Man Tarot card (signifying death) as Johnny’s future destiny… As Mora’s third boyfriend in as many years, the question is whether Hopper’s Johnny Drake can avoid the fate of the others: a watery death.
The film’s title comes from an Edgar Allen Poe quote, displayed on screen at the end. It’s helpful to approach this movie as a cod-Poe (pardon the fishy pun) tale of Sirens, Harpies and the sexual unconscious. The film’s ambivalent conclusion plays right into that, allowing a ‘straight’ reading that has Mora brainwashed by her ‘rescuer’ Captain Murdock into believing the old tales of the ‘sea people’ and her membership of their race. Or there’s the more supernatural reading that allows for everything we think we’ve seen on screen to be real.
There is an echo here of Val Lewton’s Cat People from almost 20 years before. The playful teasing as to whether the purported supernatural happenings are real or imaginary is a terribly difficult tightrope to walk and still produce a satisfying film. Both Cat People and Night Tide — although very different films — pull it off, complete with complicated psycho-sexual subtexts.
Dennis Hopper had been acting for just over half a decade when he won the leading role in Night Tide. Following some TV work and appearances alongside pal James Dean, Hopper would go on to become one of the figureheads of Hollywood’s 1960s counterculture revolution with Easy Rider. His later career never quite lived up to his initial promise, but did result in gems like Blue Velvet (best not mention Super Mario Bros., Waterworld or Space Truckers). He died, aged 74, in May 2010.
Linda Lawson was, like Hopper in the early 1960s, a TV actress. Unlike Hopper she never enjoyed a breakthrough role or movie and never made an impact on the movie-going public. A one-time 1950s showgirl and singer at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Lawson never really escaped TV and was last seen in a 2005 episode of E.R. She has now retired from acting.
Marjorie Cameron was never really an actress, more of a would-be performance artist and hanger-on in 1950s and 1960s Hollywood occult circles. She played Kali and the Scarlet Woman in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (Anger and Harrington were great mates) in 1954. In 1946 Cameron, her husband-to-be occult rocket scientist (and founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory) Jack Parsons, and SF writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard took part in the so-called ‘Babylon Working’, a difficult magical ritual that aimed to create a demonic offspring. She didn’t act again after Night Tide and died in 1995 aged 73.
Curtis Harrington was an odd Hollywood fringe character whose various horror films have been unfairly overlooked. Following Night Tide he went on to make a number of exploitation movies including Queen of Blood (1966, an inspiration for Ridley Scott’s Alien) and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971). Lack of mainstream opportunity saw Harrington fall into directing episodic TV, including episodes of Logan’s Run, Wonder Woman and Charlie’s Angels, ending up toiling on episodes of Dynasty and The Colbys (which at least pleased his camp sensibilities). He was a huge movie fan and held much old Hollywood lore in his head, making him an ideal friend for Kenneth Anger. He died in 2007 of complications following a stroke, aged 80.
There a couple of good ones in Night Tide. When searching for a bottle of whiskey for Captain Murdoch, Drake is shocked to discover a severed hand in a jar of formaldehyde sitting on a shelf. The opening barroom scene can’t be beaten, though, as Marjorie Cameron’s mysterious water witch accosts Mora and spouts phonetic Greek at her (Cameron had to learn the text by rote).
Drake thinks he’s being seduced by a naked Mora (or is it a dream?), when he suddenly realises she’s become a many tentacled octopus that he must wrestle (or is that the dream? — it’s hard to tell). The offbeat scene recalls the moment when Bela Lugosi struggles with a rubber octopus in Bride of the Monster (recreated in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood). It may even be the same octopus prop!
Harrington had Dennis Hopper’s sailor uniform specially made at some expense, and then as usual in film, dyed it off-white so it wouldn’t glare on screen. One day, they passed by the Navy’s Military Police who promptly picked up Hopper for having a dirty uniform! Ever the Hollywood bad boy Hopper had worked hard until the last scheduled day, but he was so depressed that the filming was ending he got drunk and got into a bad motorcycle accident.
Made for only $25,000, Night Tide opened the 1961 Venice International Film Festival. Squabbles about money between the producers saw the film held back from release until 1963 when it was dumped in inappropriate double-bills by AIP (one release saw the movie teamed with Soviet SF adventure Battle Beyond the Sun!). Grindhouse re-releases in 42nd Street dives saw the film find new and more appreciative audiences through the 1970s.
Curtis Harrington: “When it comes to fear, I usually go by instinct. I know what will affect me, but I don’t have a formula. I avoid the cheap effect — adding a loud noise to the soundtrack that startles the audience, for example. I still think the Val Lewton approach is the best one, and that is the power of suggestion. What you don’t see is more unsettling than what you do see.” — Penny Blood Magazine, www.pennyblood.com/harrington.html
After years of obscurity and unavailability, Night Tide is now on DVD from Milestone (but only as a US import).
www.milestonefilms.com/pdf/Nighttide.pdf [DVD and cinema re-release press notes]
www.thehollywoodinterview.blogspot.com/2010/03/remembering-horror-maestro-curtis.html[Memorial feature on Curtis Harrington]
There seem to be no current plans to remake Night Tide. Subsequent mermaid movies went the cute rather than spooky route, including Splash (1984) and its sequel, as well as The Little Mermaid (1989). The more adventurous viewer may want to try I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), which is offbeat if not spooky.
The Bottom Line
Slow-moving, but quirky enough to reward viewing: the young Hopper is the main attraction, but the other actors are all a little off-kilter in their performances and the atmosphere is weird.
By Brian J. Robb