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Like some of his peers in the world of experimental filmmaking, Curtis Harrington was a fancier of Hollywood pictures and highly motivated to join the mainstream -- while retaining his individualistic style. His first film effort was almost a leap of faith, a scramble to find funding for an independent, non-union production at a time when films not approved by the Guilds had little or no chance to find a wide release. Back in 1960 there was no independent film movement, just a variety of outsiders trying to make a buck. Harrington described himself as an artist too ambitious and optimistic to heed warnings from industry professionals. But the film he put together garnered enough critical attention to launch his career.
Night Tide is a modest, moody psychological thriller that almost but not quite becomes a horror film. Harrington had been a devotee of horror long before the genre was discussed in print anywhere, and in fact his 1952 essays on horror seem to be the first American critical work. His interest in the films of Val Lewton is obvious. Night Tide is clearly a reworking of Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's classic Cat People.Night Tide scores high marks with its low-key mood and underplaying. Harrington's movie evokes the lonely feeling of life on the Santa Monica / Venice seashore. Johnny, a lonely sailor (an incredibly young and freshly-scrubbed Dennis Hopper) meets and courts the beautiful and 'different' Mora (Linda Lawson). At breakfast, Mora says explains that she was found orphaned on an island by Captain Sam Murdock (Gavin Muir), who is now a sideshow proprietor on the pier. Her job: professional mermaid. For a few coins, the curious can look into a tank of water, where she lies fish-costumed and submerged, idly combing her hair. Other denizens of the pier, including the friendly daughter (Luana Anders) of the carousel operator, warn Johnny that several of Mora's previous boyfriends have drowned under mysterious circumstances. An equally mysterious Woman in Black interrupts Mora's dance on the beach, her presence causing the sensitive girl to faint. When Johnny tracks this woman along the Venice canals, she unaccountably disappears. Johnny endures a hallucination in which Mora transforms into a murderous sea-creature, yet he pays no heed to the alcoholic Murdock and a Tarot card-reading spiritualist (Marjorie Eaton). Just when Johnny is beginning to take their warnings seriously, Mora insists on taking him scuba-diving...
Harrington's movie does convey some of the feel of a Lewton film, but on a real location instead of studio sets. The Lewton working-world ethic is followed in that every character has an occupation and is seen doing it. There is also a general 'niceness' to the characters, another Lewton trademark. The story isn't conflict-driven in that no terrible jealousies seem to emerge -- nobody is threatening Johnny to stay away from Mora, etc. Harrington creates little character moments that stand by themselves. When the quiet, shy Johnny finds a girl friend, he expresses his happiness by jumping onto a railing and balancing for a few steps.
From Harrington's experimental period come the moodiness, a few cryptic references, and a surprisingly effective nightmare sequence, considering that Dennis Hopper is simply shown wrestling a prop rubber octopus. Hopper chasing his troubled mermaid girlfriend into the surf under the pier is reminiscent of Vertigo -- is he chasing after a phantom? Harrington knew many Hollywood professionals and explains that he approached anybody he could think of to work on his show. His efforts attracted a few good associates, especially famed composer David Raksin, who gives this minor production a quality score.
Night Tide captures an intangible quality of what Santa Monica was like in the early 1960s, a quiet place for a weekend or evening stroll. The aging funfair pier evokes a proper feeling of seedy despair. Everyone seems to be living 'just off' the mainstream. The pier is still there and the carousel (best known for The Sting) still functions. Harrington stages a breakfast scene, pretending that a part of the pier's railing is a deck outside Mora's little room above the arcade. We can see the now-extinct Pacific Ocean Park and its roller coaster a mile or so down the coastline in Venice. When I came to L.A. in 1970 P.O.P. was already a memory. Only a line of pilings remained.
Watching Night Tide and listening to its entertaining commentary track with Harrington and Hopper, it becomes painfully clear why the film hadn't a chance in hell of being a success in the early 1960s. Commercial low budget horror wasn't supposed to be moody and psychological -- where were the monsters and the blood, or Vincent Price? Harrington explains that the lack of a Code Seal held back as wide release for two years. Roger Corman's Filmgroup put it out first, and then American-International took it over and cleared things with the Guilds. Night Tide earned most of its reputation from television screenings, although I remember it on a cheapie double bill as late as 1967. Curtis Harrington went on to do a couple of extremely low budget films for A.I.P. including the ingenious Queen of Blood, a patchwork combining new scenes with Dennis Hopper built around special effects taken from a Russian space movie.
Not everyone associated with the Roger Corman / A.I.P. school of exploitation filmmaking fared as well as Francis Coppola or Peter Bogdanovich. Curtis Harrington and his equally expressive contemporary Monte Hellman (Two-Lane Blacktop) had spotty careers spent mostly in search of the next moviemaking opportunity. They were thrown plenty of critical bouquets, but few films to direct. Dennis Hopper had a much more visible career as both a director and actor. He passed away in 2010, and Harrington in 2007.
Kino's Blu-ray of Night Tide outdistances previous disc editions -- it was sourced from a 2008 film restoration performed at the Academy Film Archive. The image quality is excellent throughout. The widescreen framing captures perfectly the texture of Vilis Lapenieks's B&W cinematography. Lapenieks would continue with Harrington on Queen of Blood.
The commentary with Harrington and Dennis Hopper is carried over from the earlier (2000) Image DVD. It's good listening, with Hopper asking questions (he doesn't completely remember making the film), and Harrington explaining that he felt prepared during the shoot, but was not yet experienced in directing actors. This would come as a perfect opportunity for Hooper to generously disagree, but he instead states that he helped out in that department. Both are impressed by Linda Lawson, who later dropped out to marry John Foreman and later appeared in his production Sometimes a Great Notion. Harrington and Hopper heap praise upon the late Luana Anders (she passed away in 1996, aged only 58) whom they describe as a beloved talent and a key actor friend to the late- -50s group that included Jack Nicholson and other Roger Corman alumni. Near the end of the track, Harrington explains that Hopper had stayed sober and on task all the way through the filming, only to show up on one of the last days so drunk that he could hardly keep a straight face. He points out the shots that were affected.
Also included is a very welcome 1987 video interview with Curtis Harrington, where we see even more of the man's personality. Host David Del Valle prompts excellent, candid responses. The interview is a good complement to the commentary.
An original Filmgroup trailer is present. Commercially speaking it's a disaster, as 50% of the images are just vague text superimposed over crashing waves. It does point out the 'mystery woman' haunting Mora, one of the tentative connections linking the film to Cat People.
Back in the commentary Harrington remarks on how much he likes the art used for the midway banner promoting "Mora the Mermaid". I'm not sure I've ever seen an A.I.P. poster for Night Tide, as the two styles commonly viewable have Filmgroup ID. The poster used on the box cover shows a figure that doesn't look like Mora; it very much resembles the art used for Herk Harvey's impressive 1962 opus Carnival of Souls.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Night Tide Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.