Most modern audiences are likely unfamiliar with Curtis Harrington as a filmmaker in general, let alone as an avant-garde artist and member of an underground movement in cinema around the early 1960s. Inspired by the writings of Edgar Alan Poe, Harrington started making experimental short films in the '40s until about 1955. Though hailed by critics who saw them, and praised by audiences at the colleges and film societies that were lucky enough to screen them, Harrington didn't make his feature film directorial debut until the 1960 genre mash-up 'Night Tide,' starring a young Dennis Hopper, whose star-on-the-rise was considered something of a coup for the low budget pseudo-horror/exploitation flick.
Actually, exploitation and horror (pseudo or otherwise) might be something of a misnomer with regard to this quirky, dreamlike and occasionally suspenseful film that would lay the thematic foundation for the rest of Harrington's career. 'Night Tide' certainly has something of a pedigree in the exploitation genre of the time – especially since financing on the modestly budgeted film (Harrington mentions in the commentary that it was made for around $50,000) was only secured after Roger Corman stepped in to help with the distribution process once the film had been completed. But the film is also very much of the experimental, avant-garde realm in which Harrington had cut his teeth since 1942, while also working as an author and film critic.
So, this bizarre, somewhat aloof tale of two would-be lovers and the sea that was figuratively between them, found it was itself torn between two identifiers that actually fit it quite well. Hopper, here, plays a sailor named Johnny Drake, a young man with somewhat juvenile sensibilities who meets and quickly becomes enraptured with a woman named Mora (Linda Lawson), who makes her living pretending to be a mermaid on the Venice Boardwalk. One night after making her acquaintance in a smoky grotto filled with the sound of live jazz, Johnny asks to walk her home, only to discover she lives above a carousel run by a sweet, well-meaning family played by Tom Dillon and future Corman and Hopper collaborator Luana Anders as his granddaughter Ellen Sands.
It turns out that while the carousel operators find Mora the Mermaid to be pleasant enough, they're concerned about young Johnny, as the last two men who've managed to catch Mora's eye have both turned up dead, having drowned in the ocean. Around this time we meet Mora's boardwalk spokesman and surrogate father, Captain Samuel Murdoch (Gavin Muir), an affable fellow with one eye constantly on Mora, and another on his too easily drunk bottles of gin. One afternoon, while Johnny is chasing a strange ethereal woman who has been haunting his would-be love interest, he stumbles upon Captain Murdoch, who drunkenly regales the young sailor with how he came to find Mora, and how she's an honest to goodness mermaid; but not just a mermaid, a siren – one of the mythical creatures who would lure men to their doom and a watery grave. This concept would go on to become a mark of the director's future work in which women frequently took a commanding role over weaker, more desperate and sometimes subordinate men.
As Johnny realizes he's falling in love with Mora, he becomes gradually more concerned that the tale Captain Murdoch told him might actually be true, and that his ladylove is actually half-fish. Although this notion is borderline ridiculous, the film uses the tonal shift to its advantage, turning the preconceived notions of the audience on their ear, and beginning a second and then third act to the film in which anything could conceivably happen, sine the suspicions surrounding Mora's true nature have opened all kinds of narrative doors.
The charm of 'Night Tide,' however, comes not so much from the weirdness of its storyline, but the sort of informal, laid-back manner in which it presents itself. Hopper and Lawson give carefree performances that border on dispassionate, yet actually work to heighten the independent and underground nature of Harrington's film. Additionally, while the move never goes completely off the rails, or slips into other genre conventions like extreme gore, blood, or sex, it instead heads in the opposite direction. Johnny and Mora's relationship is mostly chaste, and the closest things get to untoward is when Johnny falls asleep on her sofa and wakes to find Mora standing in front of him in nothing but a towel. The film excels in leaving things half unanswered for as long as possible, while also wringing subtle weirdness from its scenes, such as the one in which Mora snatches a curious seagull hovering over Johnny's plate of uneaten fish.
It all boils down to a strangely detached little film that examines the product of loneliness, abandonment and what it means to be an outsider. The story seems to suggest that, for many, setting goals will only keep things out of reach and illusory. Meanwhile, the narrative quietly, but effectively paints authority as inherently dishonest and fearful of change. In effect, 'Night Tide' was very much a product of the times, reflecting the younger generation's changing feelings toward the United States as an establishment it could no longer place its trust in. In the end, Harrington's dreamlike picture remains a unique product of the '60s underground film circuit and a movie that should be watched as much for the bizarre tale it tells, as for the careers it helped launch.
The Blur-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Night Tide' is another excellent disc from the folks at Kino Classics. It is a single 50GB Blu-ray in the standard keepcase. The insert boasts some nice looking original artwork, but is pretty basic otherwise. As with most Kino releases, there are no previews ahead of the top menu, but you can check out trailers for other films from the company.
'Night Tide' has been mastered in high definition from 35 mm elements that were restored by the Academy Film Archive, with support from The Film Foundation. The resulting 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, then, is spectacular. It sports a very nice, clear, detailed image that looks consistent for the most part and plays up the black and white cinematography quite well. Although some segments have a considerable amount of grain visible, that grain only helps to give it a sense of time and lets the viewer know that this film was low budget 53 years ago. All in all, though, the grain is just another nice touch that lends this film a more naturalistic feel, which goes hand-in-hand with the performances and direction.
In addition to the grain, there are some artifacts and scratches visible, but, again, the restored image is largely fantastic. There is a nice amount of detail visible in the young actors' faces, as well as in the background and certain other elements. There's a scene about midway through the film when Harrington shows the neighborhood Captain Murdoch lives in, as a something not far from a hellscape. In this instance, the image is remarkably clean and free of elements that might detract from the details presented on screen. Other times, however, the image can be a tad blurry, or under soft focus and it is not entirely clear whether this was intentional. For the most part, contrast levels are quite strong. Blacks are inky and deep – especially during the night sequences. Meanwhile white levels can sometimes look a bit high, but are generally right on the money as well.
This is a great looking remastered edition of a film that could have easily gone by the wayside, or have been forgotten. The new image will be a treat for audiences familiar with 'Night Tide' and it will make for a terrific first viewing for those who've never experienced it before.
The audio on 'Night Tide' comes in the form of an LPCM 2.0 soundtrack that provides all the necessary audio elements the film needs in a terrific little package. The dialogue is clean and easy to understand, and there is a nice sense of balance between the actors, the atmospheric sounds and the musical score. For the most part, it's not a terribly deep sounding film; most of what is offered here was likely recorded on the spot, with little audio mixing going on in postproduction – though I'm sure there was some. But generally, the 2.0 mix does a great job of giving everything space and making it all sound like one cohesive, dynamic package.
You will likely notice a bit of hissing, scratches and some pitch in some places, but overall the audio is quite nice. There's not a lot to 'Night Tide' in terms of audio, but what is offered sounds quite good most of the time. In fact, it's generally nice enough that the few issues the mix has wind up being noticeable, but forgivable due to the overall quality of the sound here.
Interviews with Curtis Harrington
'Night Tide' was never quite a horror film, an exploitation film, or an avant-garde experimental film; instead it was a strange mash-up of all three that somehow managed to embody some of the best elements of the underground cinematic movement at the time. While both Harrington and Hopper are gone, this early work clearly demonstrates how they would each go on to become influential in their own way. In that sense, 'Night Tide' was something of a pioneering effort that paved the way for independent cinema and unique filmmakers for decades to come. With it's terrific looking restoration, decent sound and interesting special features this one comes recommended.