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NIGHT TIDE

Quiet and eerie early-sixties horror from the famed auteur Curtis Harrington.  It’s a bit overly subdued for my tastes, but still effective, with a fine lead performance by a young Dennis Hopper and an extremely atmospheric evocation of Venice Beach, California. 

The Package 
     NIGHT TIDE was filmed in 1960, but wasn’t released until ’63.  The budget, raised with the help of B-movie impresario Roger Corman, was around $75,000, and the film was shot in various Southern California seafront locations, including Venice Beach, the Santa Monica Pier, Pacific Ocean Park and the Long Beach Pike. 
     It was the premiere feature by Curtis Harrington, then known for his avant-garde shorts.  That experience carries over into NIGHT TIDE, which features the Aleister Crowley disciple Cameron (as, appropriately, the “Lady in Black”) and whose script contains elements of AT LAND (1944), a classic underground film by Maya Daren.  Another influence was the Val Lewton produced CAT PEOPLE (1942), from which Harrington admittedly lifted NIGHT TIDE’S overall structure.  Harrington would go on to make many more films and TV movies--GAMES (1967), THE KILLING KIND (1973), WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971) and RUBY (1977), to name a few--but NIGHT TIDE remains his best-known work.
     The lead actor was 24-year-old Dennis Hopper, in his first-ever starring role (following supporting parts in big budgeters like REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE and GIANT).  His co-star, the mysterious and alluring Linda Lawson, has done little in the ensuing years, despite the daunting impression she made in NIGHT TIDE. 

The Story 
     Johnny Drake is a young sailor on leave in Venice Beach, CA.  At a seaside amusement park one night he strikes up a conversation with the alluring Mora, and manages to wrangle his way into her private sanctum above a Merry-Go-Round.  Over breakfast the next morning Mora reveals that she works as a mermaid at the amusement park where they met the night before; Johnny visits the park later on to see Mora lounging at the bottom of a fish tank for the edification of leering guests.  A local woman warns Johnny that Mora had two boyfriends previous to him who both died under suspicious circumstances, but Johnny becomes distracted by a mysterious middle aged woman dressed all in black.  Johnny follows the woman through many of the skuzzier areas of Venice Beach, where she somehow manages to elude him.  By coincidence, however, he finds himself outside the home of Mora’s boss Captain Murdock, who invites Johnny in and tells him the apparent truth about Mora: she’s a real mermaid, descended from the unearthly sirens that in Greek mythology lured ships to their doom.
     Johnny is understandably skeptical of this account.  However, the following night he tells Mora what he’s learned and she confirms that she is indeed a mermaid, and as such is constantly tormented by the ethereal voice of the sea.  She proves this, or seems to, by “sleepwalking” into the ocean, forcing Johnny to wade out and rescue her.  A few days later, on the eve of a full moon, Mora invites Johnny to go scuba diving with her...and once the two are submerged severs his oxygen tube and swims off.  Devastated, Johnny returns to the amusement park, where he peers into the mermaid tank to discover Mora’s corpse and, standing nearby, Captain Murdock, who points a gun at Johnny and reveals a shocking secret... 

The Direction 
     This was Curtis Harrington’s first narrative feature, lensed on an extremely low budget, which explains the many inconsistencies.  The jazzy score by David Raskin is superb, but the location sound recording is poor.  Also, the pacing is wonky, with some scenes, particularly a mid-film visit to a psychic, allowed to drag on far too long.  Harrington also had a penchant for shooting through doorways, which leads to much annoyance, as the actors are always opening doors and then never closing them. 
     But Harrington nevertheless manages to create a singularly haunting, almost dreamlike aura that grows increasingly pervasive.  As there’s little to no overt horror, and the languid narrative isn’t exactly incident-packed, it’s best simply to bask in the creepy atmosphere and unforgettable performances of Dennis Hopper (in a rare nice-guy role) and Linda Lawson (who’s as darkly seductive as any film noir heroine).  Another draw is the superbly utilized So Cal beachfront scenery, admittedly not a traditional horror movie landscape, though in Harrington’s hands it nearly becomes one.
 

Vital Statistics 

NIGHT TIDE
Filmgroup/American International Pictures 

Director: Curtis Harrington
Producer: Aram Katarian
Screenplay: Curtis Harrington
Cinematography: Vilis Lapenieks
Editing: Jodie Copelan
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Linda Lawson, Luana Anders, Cameron, Gavin Muir, Marjorie Eaton, Tom Dillon, H.E. West, Ben Roseman, Chaino
 


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