Curtis Harrington, 1961
Starring: Dennis Hopper, Linda Lawson, Marjorie Cameron, Luana Anders
Though underrated director Curtis Harrington is not a particularly well known figure, he was associated with Roger Corman and made a number of horror and cult films, including Voyage to the Prehistorical Planet (1965), Queen of Blood (1966), What’s the Matter With Helen? (1971), Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1971), and others. Night Tide (1961) was his first feature and blends horror, fantasy, and noir in a subtle, tragic story about the doomed love between a sailor and a woman who may or may not be mermaid. This October Kino Lorber presents it for the first time on Blu-ray, where it has been lovingly restored.
While on leave, a young sailor named Johnny (Dennis Hopper) meets a lovely woman, Mora (Linda Lawson), and is determined to get close to her. Though cold at first, she warms to his naive advances and they begin dating. He learns that she is obsessed with the sea and for her day job, she acts as a mermaid in the local carnival. Johnny also meets her employer, Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), and learns other strange things about Mora: her last boyfriends suddenly died and she believes she is a mermaid, meant to return to the sea.
A strange woman (Marjorie Cameron) occasionally appears and frightens Mora, speaking to her in a strange language. Johnny later follows this woman, though she disappears and he is led to Murdock’s home. He tells Johnny Mora’s story, about how he discovered her as a child on a small island and raised her. Murdock insists that Mora is dangerous and will kill by the light of the full moon. Mora has a strange episode in the middle of the night where she tries to return to the sea, but insists she is alright the next day. They go on a scuba diving trip far out into the ocean and she cuts Johnny’s breathing tube. He survives, but finds Mora’s lifeless body mysteriously back in the mermaid tank. After a confrontation with Murdock, he learns that Murdock was responsible for the previous murders, though things might be more mysterious than they seem.
To many genre fans, Night Tide will not initially seem like a horror film with its numerous daytime shots, seaside, carnival setting full of jazz music, amusement rides, and ‘60s California vibe. Based on a story by director Curtis Harrington, this is essentially an oceanside reworking of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur’s subtle horror classic Cat People and the horror is mostly psychological, located in the symbols, shadows, sexual anxiety, and occult implications rather than in gore or scares. There is also a mythic, fairytale quality about Night Tide and a sense that though we don’t really know where the meandering plot is headed, things will not end well.
Harrington met artist Marjorie Cameron, who plays the mysterious woman, back when he worked with the great Kenneth Anger on Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). He made a documentary about her, The Wormwood Star, which relates part of the strange story of her life. She was married to scientist and occult figure Jack Parsons and both were devoted followers of Aleister Crowley. (To learn more about their bizarre and fascinating lives together, check out Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter.) The occult themes here are subtle, but effective, relying on a dreamlike, mythic quality rather than open displays of magic, though the film boasts what is possibly the only realistic Tarot card reading scene in horror cinema.
Dennis Hopper fans will definitely want to check this out, as he plays against type in one of his first starring roles as the naive, nervous, and earnest Johnny. Though Hooper (R.I.P.) became known for his strange, violent, and often villainous roles, there is something innocent and almost fumbling in his performance as Johnny and he is perfect for the role. The lovely Linda Lawson (Apache Rifles and a lot of television) has perhaps her biggest film role here, but is very memorable as the tragic, nymph-like Mora. As with Simone Simon in Cat People, she is often framed partially in the shadows or in symbolically suggestive shots, looking beautiful, but mysterious and somewhat threatening.
Roger Corman regular Luana Anders (Pit and the Pendulum, Hopper’s Easy Rider) is likable as Johnny’s secondary love interest and almost manages not to be overshadowed by Lawson. Gavin Muir (The House of Fear) is somewhat forgettable as Captain Murdock and it’s a shame he wasn’t given a more substantial role. Though the ending (where he admits to at least emotionally abusing Mora) features Muir significantly, it would have had a bigger impact if we had been able to witness more of this behavior throughout the film.
Night Tide was newly remastered in 1080p HD with an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 from original 35mm elements by the Academy Film Archive, supervised by Curtis Harrington, and with support from The Film Foundation. While Vilis Lapenieks (Little Shop of Horrors, Queen of Blood) is credited as the cinematographer, Harrington later revealed that Roger Corman regular Floyd Crosby also did some work on the film. In addition to many of Corman’s horror films like House of Usher and X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes, Crosby also shot classics like High Noon, From Here to Eternity, and many more. Regardless of who is responsible, the cinematography is fantastic and looks wonderful on Blu-ray. The inky blanks from many of the noir-like, shadowy nighttime shots have excellent contrast and the daytime shots are well-balanced and not washed out. There is no obvious age damage or blemishes.
The 2.0 Mono track sounds clear and sharp and there is no distracting hissing or popping. Dialogue, sound effects, and the score are all well mixed. The jazzy score from accomplished conductor and composer David Raksin (Laura) is one of the film’s finest points and adds something to the mood that again resists Night Tide’s classification as a horror film. The score also helps solidify that we are watching a film shot smack in the middle of the Beat movement in California.
There aren’t a lot of extras included with this release, though there is a wonderful commentary from Curtis Harrington and Dennis Hopper that was taken from the original DVD release. There is a also a two part interview with Harrington from 1987, as well as the original theatrical trailer. Night Tide is not for everyone, but is a criminally forgotten, magical little film. Fans of Dennis Hopper and of more subtle, symbolic horror will definitely want to check it out. As always, Kino has done an admirable job with this Blu-ray release and here’s hoping that they give the same attention to some of Curtis Harrington’s other neglected horror films.