Night Tide

While Linda Lawson is trapped by waves beneath a pier, Dennis Hopper comes to her rescue. From Night Tide.
(© 1963 Filmgroup and American International Pictures. All rights reserved.)

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After roles in movies such as Blue Velvet and River's Edge, Dennis Hopper became Hollywood's selection of choice when casting psychotic lead characters. However, early in his career, Hopper could be surprisingly sweet and gentle. For an example of Hopper in this mode, try Night Tide, a wonderfully eerie independently-financed production directed by Curtis Harrington and released in 1963.

Night Tide is fun to watch for several reasons -- such as the Val Lewton-inspired plot that evokes Cat People, the charismatic performance by Luana Anders in a supporting role, the effective use of on-location footage from (now-defunct) carnivals built on Los Angeles-area piers/boardwalks (Santa Monica Pier, Pacific Ocean Park, Long Beach Pike, and others). But the main reason for the movie's success is simply the presence of Dennis Hopper. He portrays a sailor on leave who stumbles into a jazz club one evening and encounters a mysterious young woman named Mora who he attempts to befriend (in somewhat awkward fashion).

Like a stereotypical sailor on leave, Johnny Drake is indeed horny and on the make, but Hopper gives an achingly vulnerable performance. Johnny wants to make a love connection, but his primary motive is to relieve his loneliness. In the opening credits sequence, Johnny roams through a seaside carnival. Alone, he climbs into a photo booth and grins for the camera, and all this time, an undercurrent of sadness fills his performance. We never see Johnny with other sailors (until the movie's final scenes). We never see him interacting with men his own age. He's a dislocated presence caught in a strange environment.

Mora (Linda Lawson in a beguiling performance) makes her living by playing a mermaid in a carnival sideshow. She dresses in a fishtail and sits in a water tank while people file past and peek at her. However, the barker who urges carnival-goers to shell out two bits and pass through the turnstile suggests she is much more. He tells Johnny he picked her up on an isolated Mediterranean island and raised her from a child. But now he intimates that her last few boyfriends died under strange circumstances. Who is Mora? Or, what is Mora?

As in Cat People, there may be a connection between Mora's sexuality and a hidden, savage, murderous side to her character. As Mora's love for Johnny grows, the uncertainty about his future grows. Will he go the way of her past boyfriends and wash up on the beach dead? Also as in Cat People, Mora is tied to an older race of beings by a mysterious woman who steps from the shadows to utter words in a strange language, imploring Mora to well, we're never sure exactly what the Woman in Black wants. But her austere presence suggests another dislocation -- this time for Mora. (A woman simply known as "Cameron" plays this Woman in Black. She was a disciple of the infamous satanist Aleister Crowley.)

The only sense of normality for Johnny comes when he enters a merry-go-round pavilion, where he has befriended the man who operates the ride (Tim Dillon) and the man's twenty-ish daughter Ellen (Luana Anders). There is definite chemistry between Johnny and Ellen. She likes him and wants him to stick around. But Johnny is obsessed with Mora. He smiles and chitchats with Ellen, but his mind is always elsewhere.

Night Tide was director Curtis Harrington's first feature length movie (after several well-received shorts in the '50s), and it's arguably his best movie. He would go on to direct the minor cult items What's the Matter with Helen? and Games. Night Tide is a remarkably warm and compassionate horror film. Harrington wants us to like the characters. You can tell by the way he lets the camera linger on Anders' face, emphasizing her loneliness, and by the way he lets the camera emphasize the comic countenance of Mora's benefactor, Captain Sam Murdock (Sherlock Holmes veteran Gavin Muir). He's a crazy old alcoholic, but he's horribly lonely and fears what might happen if a man takes Mora away from him.

Filmed on a budget of just $75,000, Night Tide is a remarkably polished movie considering its monetary limitations. In part, the movie's sophisticated look can be attributed to the work of legendary cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who filmed the interior sequences. Crosby was an Academy Award-winning photographer who had lensed High Noon and worked extensively with Roger Corman. (He was also the father of rock musician David Crosby.) In addition, Harrington managed to convince his friend David Raksin to provide a jazz-influenced musical score. Raksin's previous work included the scores for Laura and The Bad and the Beautiful, as well as the musical arrangements for Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

Now available on DVD from the Milestone Collection and Image Entertainment, Night Tide is one of the great low-budget horror movies of the '60s. This DVD presentation includes a decent audio commentary track featuring Harrington and Hopper. The commentary (originally recorded for the Roan Group's laserdisc release of Night Tide) was recorded by simply turning on the movie and recording anything Harrington and Hopper uttered -- even when they're shelling out obviously false tidbits. For example, they try telling us that Night Tide was the first movie made outside the studio system (as if the long history of exploitation cinema never happened). However, the commentary also includes several welcome insights, as when Harrington reveals that the movie was actually filmed in 1960 but its release was delayed until '63 because of legal complications involving the financier.

Night Tide is now available on DVD from Milestone Collection and Image Entertainment in a wide-screen transfer (1.85:1). The DVD contains an alternative audio track with commentary by director Curtis Harrington and star Dennis Hopper. In addition, the DVD contains an original theatrical trailer. The liner notes were written by Richard Valley, the publisher/editor of Scarlet Street. Suggested retail price: $24.99.