Film Review: 'Night Tide' (1961)

in film •  last month  (edited)


For once, Dennis Hopper plays a fairly normal guy in Curtis Harrington's Night Tide.

Night Tide (1961), directed by Curtis Harrington from his own script; starring Dennis Hopper, Linda Lawson, Luana Anders, and Gavin Muir.

I borrowed this film from Netflix DVD about ten years ago, based on recommendations from some talk board or other. I didn’t retain that much from it except the idea of a killer mermaid, which I used as a jumping-off point for the main story in my book, The Drowning Game.

After watching Curtis Harrington’s underrated thriller Games (1967) a couple of days ago, I looked up his filmography and was surprised to see that Night Tide was one of his films. I watched it again on streaming and this time, I paid closer attention to it, in preparation for writing this review. I’m glad I did.

Shot on a shoestring from Harrington’s own script, Night Tide looks low-budget, but has as high a quality as a director can probably get from a cheapie. The super-atmospheric b&w cinematography, for example, is co-credited to Floyd Crosby, who shot two legendary mid-century classics, High Noon and From Here to Eternity, both for Fred Zinnemann.

Night Tide begins with a very young Dennis Hopper as Johnny, a sailor barely out of his teens, taking his shore leave at a seedy jazz bar called The Blue Grotto. (This is not the Dennis Hopper most people know, who later specialized in playing nutters and weirdos; Johnny is a naive, lonely guy with little real world experience.) The Blue Grotto is in LA’s Venice Beach district, fabled for its Bohemian atmosphere, and also the setting for a funky, decaying seaside amusement park.

Johnny spies a beautiful young woman sitting at a table alone (Linda Lawson) and asks if he can sit down. The woman isn’t friendly but Johnny chats her up anyway. A peculiar middle-aged woman, swathed in a floaty black veil, approaches their table and begins talking to the girl in a strange language. The girl gets upset and flees to the street, but Johnny follows her. He manages to wangle a name — Mora — and an address out of her. She invites him over for breakfast the next day. Mora lives on the carnival boardwalk, in an apartment above an antique carousel operated by an old man and his granddaughter, Ellen (Luanna Anders.)

When Johnny turns up for breakfast, Mora tells him she works as a carnival attraction for a man named Captain Murdoch (Gavin Muir). She wears a mermaid costume and poses in a tank that looks like it’s filled with water: people pay a quarter to look. She says she owes Murdoch everything because he rescued her as an orphaned child from a Greek island, where she was starving.

Mora and Johnny become an item, with Johnny going AWOL to stay with her, but things are rocky from the start. The middle-aged woman in the floaty black veil keeps stalking Mora. A plainclothes detective shows up at the carousel, looking for clues about two murders, caused by drowning, that have recently occurred in the area.

Ellen tells Johnny that both murder victims were boyfriends of Mora. Captain Murdoch tells Johnny he’s in danger if he continues to have a relationship with Mora. So does Madame Romanovitch, a “gypsy” fortune teller who works at the carnival (well-played by the 40s character actress, Marjorie Eaton.)

Waking Up From a Nightmare

One evening, while Mora is taking a bath, Johnny falls asleep on her couch and has a creepy nightmare where she turns into a mermaid for real. When he wakes up, Mora is missing. He finds her under the pier leaning against a pylon, nearly half-drowned, and drags her back to the apartment. Upset, Mora confesses that she thinks that she’s a Siren, an ancient race of sea-dwelling creatures who lured sailors to their deaths in Greek mythology. Tellingly, Moira is always seen wearing a Grecian-style dress, like an ancient statue.

Johnny doesn’t believe her and assures her that everything will be all right. Mora perks up, and they agree to go scuba diving the next day. Heavy foreshadowing hints that Johnny is about to become Mora’s next drowning victim, but what happens next is fairly unexpected.

This film has the same eerie quality as the low-budget cult masterpiece, Carnival of Souls, which was also made in the early 60s. Both films feature a major role for a decaying amusement park. Many of the shots in Night Tide play up the inherent creepiness of the nightmarish carnival.

I’m not sure whether or not Night Tide inspired major segments of Joel Schumacher’s 1987 vampire saga, The Lost Boys, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did. (The Lost Boys is also set at a seedy seaside amusement park.) One of the nightmare scenes is kind of campy, but beyond that, this film holds up well and could be remade today into a decent flick. The scenes of the jazz combo in the Blue Grotto and the carousel are delightful.

There are several good copies of Night Tide posted on YouTube, and it’s also streaming free to members of Amazon Prime. The print I streamed unfortunately has a lot of flecks in the film for the first twenty minutes or so, and the audio track is slightly off-sync for about the same period. Someone needs to restore it.

If you love Carnival of Souls or early 60s films in general, Night Tide is a middlin’-to-strong recommend.

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ROAN Group did an exception print of it for LaserDisc, which I picked up a few months back but have yet to watch. I'm quite excited to do so now! :D

Sweet! Let me know what you think of it. There's one cheesy scene where Dennis Hopper dreams he's being strangled by a giant octopus that looks like it's made out of felt and cotton wool, but it's very brief. Otherwise, it's surprisingly non-cheesy for an early 60s film.