Curtis Harrington was an authentic cineaste whose early work was entirely experimental. Among the films he worked on before branching out on his own (as an actor and a cinematographer) were Kenneth Anger‘s Puce Moment (1949) and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Reportedly, he was involved with Maya Deren, and certainly sang her praises throughout his life. Rather than continuing in the avant-garde vein, Harrington’s first feature film was the nightmarish cult oddity Night Tide (1961). It’s been dubbed a horror film, but the label isn’t entirely adequate. Elements of James Whale, Jean Cocteau, Val Lewton, and Edgar Allan Poe are like layered slivers in this ethereal mermaid opus.
Night Tide was also the late Dennis Hopper‘s first feature film. So cemented is his psychotic reputation from films like Blue Velvet (1986) and River’s Edge (1986) that his role here as a clean cut all-American boy under the spell of an aquatic succubus might be a little disconcerting. Yet, Hopper brings an element of vulnerability and pathos to his lonely sailor that makes him ideally cast as one lovestruck for the mermaid of the full moon, and helps make Night Tide deserving of its reputation as a quirky original.
In its subtlety and evocative atmosphere Night Tide owes most to Cat People (1942). While Linda Lawson, very effective in the role of Mora, is not quite in the league of Simone Simon, Hopper is far more convincing and sympathetic than Kent Smith was in the Lewton production. Deren’s mystical influence ebbs through Harrington’s script, his cinematography and the overall milieu. As much as Harrington tried to sell his film as a commercial thriller, his previous work shaped Night Tide, stamped it as unorthodox, and certainly hurt its commercial viability.
While on leave, Johnny (Hopper), looking for female companionship, roams through a Venice Beach carnival and meets the mysterious Mora (Lawson) at a jazz bar. Strangely enough, we never see Johnny with other sailors. He only seems a sailor because we are told he is one. Otherwise, he is an outsider, dislocated in the world, and draws to another misfit soul in Mora (which makes more sense than the bourgeoisie Oliver being attracted to exotic Irena in the afore mentioned Cat People). Mora plays a mermaid in a sideshow exhibit in the carnival. Her employer is her adoptive father, Captain Sam (Gavin Muir). Johnny’s relationship with Mora is replete with obstacles, the biggest being Mora’s latent belief that she turns into a mermaid during the fill moon. Sam reveals to Johnny that he found Mora on a Mediterranean Island. Sam’s explanation is intentionally vague and masks incestuous desire. Ellen (Luana Anders, with a cup of coffee seemingly glued to her hand), is an employee of the carnival and clearly drawn and attracted to Johnny. But, Ellen’s concern for Johnny’s welfare is foremost, since two of Mora’s former boyfriends died of mysterious circumstances. With one beguiling exception, Night Tide is revealed to be entirely psychological.
That one exception is the bizarre presence of one of Mora’s “Sea People.” This presence is intentionally never explained, and even contradicts the revelations of the film. The casting of the Sea Witch is intriguingly layered: she is played by Marjorie Cameron, who happened to be a real life disciple of Aleister Crowley. The remaining casting sells the film: Hopper, Lawson, Anders, and Muir are superb in their eccentric roles. Harrington’s camera captures them repeatedly in cerebral close-ups.
There has been renewed interest in Harrington lately. Flicker Alley has recently released “The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection“, and Night Tide is receiving a Blu-ray release in October.