Cult Cinema: Night Tide (1961) - Reviewed

Before writer-director-actor Curtis Harrington cemented his position in film history as the man who found the last surviving print of James Whale’s 1932 film The Old Dark House, he made a striking debut with his most peculiar yet intriguing cult fantasy-horror hybrid Night Tide.  Released two years after completion on in 1963 due to legal problems with the financiers, Night Tide came and went through years of public domain before eventually amassing a minor cult following.  

Eventually landing in the hands of Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn who purchased the negative and premiered a new 4K restoration of the film on his website before hitting blu-ray disc, Night Tide soon began enjoying renewed public interest as a one of a kind atmospheric spooker at once dreamy and of a heightened reality.  While not overtly a horror film, it is a truly unusual mixture of psychological thriller and paean to avant-garde experimental underground American cinema.
Starring Dennis Hopper in his big screen debut as Johnny, a sailor drifting through the beaches of South California, his promenade leads him to Mora (Linda Lawson), a young woman starring in a sideshow act as a mermaid.  But after being followed repeatedly by a mysterious old woman in dressed in black, Johnny grows suspicious of Mora and begins to wonder if she is in fact a carnivorous mermaid who lures unsuspecting men into her vortex like a succubus before feasting on their bodies.

Prominently featured in Refn’s television series Too Old to Die Young which seen now with its emphasis on tarot card readings and playing fast and loose with the rules of the story feels like an offbeat riff on familiar genre tropes, Night Tide is a one of a kind atmospheric thriller.  With its jazzy score by David Raksin and moody cinematography of desolate beaches and boardwalks by Vilis Lapenieks, the film doesn’t so much convey a conventional narrative as it places you in Johnny’s headspace while exploiting the scenic beauty of the Venice and Santa Monica beach locations.
A startlingly young Dennis Hopper is excellent in the lead part of the sailor in probably his most understated performance of his career.  Also excellent is Linda Lawson who makes Mora into an alluring, mysterious and possibly dangerous sea nymph.  Part of the film’s charm is how it establishes the scenery with the quirky supporting characters, making Johnny’s journey among the strange denizens of the boardwalk like a travelogue through the underworld.  Almost every minor character Johnny comes into contact with is given equal time to flesh out their own idiosyncratic peculiarities.

Like Carnival of Souls which came right around the same time, the film is an eerie yet distinctively all-American black-and-white dose of carnivalesque atmosphere which is less interested in telling a straightforward narrative than it is in establishing a strange yet familiar world within our own.  Predating the equally underrated The Witch Who Came from the Sea by almost ten years, Night Tide is truly an interesting cult oddity flirting with elements of horror, sea creature mythology and above all mystery. 
While Curtis Harrington would naturally refine his skills much more in his forthcoming works such as Queen of Blood and Games, his debut in the director’s chair remains a most fascinatingly eerie stroll down scenic yet empty boardwalks amid colorfully weird characters with the thinly veiled threat of a deadly sea succubus waiting to drain your life dry just lurking around the corner. 

--Andrew Kotwicki