When asked to identify the greatest auteur in the field of Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone would sidestep any potential offence to such friends as his fellow Sergios Corbucci and Sollima by identifying… Homer. The Blind Bard also dreamed up (or borrowed from earlier, nonextant epic tradition) a shedload of iconic monsters including, alongside the likes of Polyphemus, Scylla and Charybdis, one whose potential to convey the fascinating / forbidding duality of women (or of men’s desire for them) via the medium of Film has gone sadly (and rather mysteriously) underdeveloped… The Siren… The murderous Mermaid.
Sexy sirens have appeared in innumerable RomComs, ranging from Ken Annakin’s Miranda and Irving Pichel’s Mr Peabody And The Mermaid (both from the annus mirabilis of 1948) to Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero (1983) and of course Ron Howard’s Splash (1984). As recently as 2016, in Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, such a creature is detailed with killing a playboy businessman but ends up falling in love with him. There have been conversely few cinematic weird tales featuring bona-fide weremaids… off the top of my head I could only come up with Amando De Ossorio’s determinedly shclocky The Loreley’s Grasp (1973), which boasted Helga Liné (below) as its eponymous fishy femme fatale.
Well here’s another, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961) revived and restored in magnificent 4K by the good graces of Nicolas Winding Refn. I’ve touched, elsewhere in this blog, on my mixed feelings about great marginal cinema (as variously defined) being in thrall to the patronage of today’s hipster taste makers, who inevitably cop for themselves, in the process, some of the kudos for which their predecessors worked so hard.
Under whatever auspices, we can only be grateful for the reemergence of Night Tide. Harrington (pictured below in a rather tasty shirt) was an extraordinary film maker, one who made the journey from low budget experimental Cinema to low budget commercial Cinema (and back), bringing his philosophical, sexual and occult preoccupations along with him.
Born 17/09/26 in LA, the precocious Harrington made his first film at 14, a zero budgeted adaptation of Poe’s Fall Of The House Of Usher, in which he essayed two thirds of the roles. He subsequently attended UCLA and worked his way up through menial studio jobs which funded further experimental shorts through the ’40s and ’50s. Harrington shot Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment (1949) and acted in Anger’s Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome (1954) and served as a production assistant on big budget pictures like the Mark Robson brace The Harder They Fall (1956) and Peyton Place (1957), also Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer (1958). After the impressive artifact under consideration here, Harrington pressed on with such Freudsteinian fare as Voyage To The Prehistoric Planet (1965), Queen of Blood (1966… pictured below and one of the many films cited as a precursor to Alien), the self-consciously postmodern Games (1967) and two decidedly camp thriller vehicles for Shelley Winters, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971).
Subsequent efforts ranged from the disturbing The Killing Kind (1973) to the possession hokum of 1977’s Ruby (briefly the most profitable indie film of all time, until knocked off its perch by John Carpenter’s Halloween the following year). Even Harrington’s “hired gun” TV movies, e.g. 1975’s The Dead Don’t Die (below) frequently contain truly startling imagery.
Harrington also directed episodes of such TV staples as The Twilight Zone, Dynasty, The Colbys and Wonder Woman. His two Charlie’s Angels episodes came in Season 2, after Charlie’s contemporary configuration of Kate Jackson (who’d appeared in Harrington’s The Killer Bees, 1974), Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd decreed that they would only work with female or gay directors. Harrington is often cited as one of the heralds of “The New Queer Cinema”, if indeed such a thing existed.
Adapted from Harrington’s own short story, The Secrets Of The Sea, Night Tide follows AWOL sailor Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper), bumming around Venice Beach, LA. A couple of years later he might well have encountered Jim Morrison, mooching around Venice and mistaking himself for A Poet. As it happens, he goes into a beatnik bar, finds Mora (Linda Lawson) and is instantly smitten. Well, why wouldn’t he be?
Locals warn him that Mora’s last two boyfriends drowned under mysterious circumstances. Well, she earns a living by putting on mermaid drag for an end-of-the-pier show but nobody can seriously believe that she’s a shape shifter who kills off her bed mates in phase with the cycle of the Moon… can they? But who’s the mystery woman played by (Marjorie) Cameron and what’s the nature of the hold she seems to exert over Mora? Or are her problems rooted in a rather more banal source, her questionable relationship with father figure Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), who took on Mora when he discovered her as an abandoned child on Mykonos (which will have its own resonance for anyone who’s ever seen Island Of Death)? The only way for Johnny to find out is to pursue his infatuation to whatever conclusion awaits…
If all that sounds a bit Cat People (1942), Harrington did nothing to dispel the shades of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur with his 1973 TV Movie The Cat Creature. Night Tide is an atmospheric enigma, eminently fit to be mentioned in such august company. For all its obvious bugetary limitations, Harrington charmed everybody in his cast and crew into making great contributions. Hopper, at this point still seriously playing roles rather than the ongoing role of Dennis Hopper, is genuinely endearing. OST composer David Raksin rises to the occasion alongside DPs Vilis Lapenieks and the uncredited Floyd (father of David) Crosby. The lure of Night Tide is irresistible. At the risk of repeating myself, Harrington was an extraordinary film maker, whose autobiography is well worth seeking out.
Aside from the expected trailer and image gallery, disc 1 on this set includes two illuminating audio commentaries, one from Harrington and Hopper (1998), the second courtesy of writer and film programmer Tony Rayns (2020). Harrington and Raynes are in agreement that the film’s conclusion is clear cut, but I’m with Hopper, who didn’t quite get it (and I wouldn’t attribute that entirely to his epic drug consumption in the meantime). Ah well, there’s my excuse to watch and enjoy Night Tide all over again. You also get no less than three career-spanning interviews with the director, two of them being episodes from David Del Valle’s Sinister Image public access TV series. All good…
… and there are plenty more bonus goodies on Disc 2, comprising a generous sampling of Harrington’s indie shorts. The 1942 Fall of the House of Usher is technically crude but give the guy a break, he was 14! Fragment of Seeking (1946) mixes surrealist and expressionist tropes in an exploration of sexual unease. Picnic (1948) treads similar thematic ground while On the Edge (1949) and The Assignation (shot in the other Venice during 1953) are fraught with intimations of mortality. In The Wormwood Star (another colour effort from 1956) the aforementioned Cameron seems to achieve an elevated state of consciousness via working on her paintings and ritual. Harrison even manages to work his magickal concerns into The Four Elements, a 13 minute industrial film from 1966 ostensibly extolling the virtues of American capitalism and its capacity to deliver eternal economic expansion from finite resources (not among Greta Thunberg’s favourite flicks, this one, I would imagine). Bringing things full circle, Harrington (increasingly frustrated by the lack of opportunities to mount the kind of Artistic statements that he wanted) sold a signed edition of Aleister Crowley to finance his 37 minute rendering of Usher, completed in 2002 (five years before his death in Hollywood). As in the version from 60 years earlier, the director plays both Roderick and Madeleine Usher. Auteurists and their obsessions, eh?