Sunday, October 1, 2017

Classic Films in Focus: NIGHT TIDE (1961)

Written and directed by Curtis Harrington, Night Tide (1961) offers a moody atmosphere and a very young Dennis Hopper as its main attractions, along with a tragic story about a girl who believes she might be a supernatural temptress from the deep. Its low budget production and ambiguous monster might not thrill everyone, but fans of Val Lewton's work will find a lot to appreciate here. Night Tide relies on doubt and suggestion for its creeping sense of unease, as viewers struggle to learn the truth about the beautiful girl alongside Hopper's infatuated protagonist. If you like Cat People (1942) or even cult favorites like Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962), Night Tide is worth tracking down.

Hopper plays young Navy sailor Johnny, who wanders onto the Santa Monica Pier lonely and looking for love. He finds an opportunity with Mora (Linda Lawson), a beautiful but mysterious girl who plays a mermaid in one of the pier's sideshows. Soon Johnny learns unnerving tidbits about Mora, including the drowning deaths of her last two boyfriends. Her guardian, Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), also warns Johnny about Mora, and even Mora herself seems to believe that she poses a danger to her lovers. Johnny isn't sure if more mundane perils dog Mora or if she might really be a deadly siren born to lure men to a watery grave.

The amusement pier is an effective setting for a story of strange, doubtful fear; Johnny drifts through the arcades and attractions like a soul caught in a gaudy, slipshod Purgatory, where nothing seems entirely real. He visits a fortune teller, strikes up a friendship with the owners of the carousel, and watches Mora in her aquarium, where she lies underwater in a mermaid costume and brushes her long, dark hair. A mysterious older woman turns up now and again to frighten Mora, but when Johnny tries to follow her she vanishes. Nothing very horrifying happens at the pier. The events are merely uncanny, but they nurture Johnny's nagging uncertainty about his love. The most overtly frightening moment is Johnny's nightmare near the end of the movie, when it's clear that his subconscious has absorbed more of the situation than his rational mind will admit.

If you grew up watching older, rougher versions of Dennis Hopper, it's a shock to see him so smooth-faced and boyish here. He had been working as an actor since 1954, but in Night Tide his character is strikingly innocent and inexperienced; he arrives in Santa Monica almost an infant, having recently lost his mother and hoping to see the world. He latches onto Mora without knowing anything about her, a dangerous course in a liminal space like the pier, situated as it is between land and sea, terra firma and the fantastic. Linda Lawson is fittingly bewitching as Mora, who pities Johnny, loves him even, but also fears that she might bring about his doom. She has a foil in Luana Anders' tomboyish Ellen, who pines after Johnny but knows she can't compete with the mermaid's charms. The love triangle adds an extra wrinkle to the tale, since Johnny can't even see the appeal of ordinary Ellen when he only has eyes for the mythical Mora. Whether her powers are real or not, Mora functions as a siren in the way she mesmerizes the men in her life, including Captain Murdock, whose feelings for her are not exactly paternal in spite of having raised her since he found her as a child. The conclusion confirms that the danger is real, even if the mermaid is not.

Curtis Harrington went on to write and direct Queen of Blood (1966), another cult horror classic; he also directed What's the Matter with Helen? (1971) and The Killing Kind (1973). For more of Dennis Hopper's early work, see Giant (1956), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), and The Sons of Katie Elder (1965); he also turns up in Queen of Blood. Linda Lawson worked mostly in television, but you can see her with Audie Murphy in Apache Rifles (1964). Luana Anders made more contributions to the horror genre with Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and Dementia 13 (1963), but she also appears with Hopper in Easy Rider (1969) and returns to work with Harrington in The Killing Kind.