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Release Date(s)1961 (October 15, 2013)
Studio(s)Phoenix Films (Kino Classics)
“And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side/Of my darling – my darling – my life and my bride/In her sepulchre there by the sea/In her tomb by the sounding sea.”
Edgar Allan Poe’s final poem, 1849’s “Annabel Lee,” concerns itself with the death of a beautiful woman whom the narrator met years ago in a “kingdom by the sea.” This evocative, elegiac poem inspired writer-director Curtis Harrington’s low-budget 1961 thriller Night Tide which has recently been released on Blu-ray from Kino Classics. It transcends its B-movie origins and reveals itself to be a work of occasional, powerful beauty.
The young Dennis Hopper portrays Johnny Drake, a naval seaman on shore leave in Santa Monica, California. While taking in a jazz combo’s performance, Johnny soon finds himself spellbound by an aloof, mysterious and attractive woman by the name of Mora (Linda Lawson). It’s clear that all isn’t what it seems when his advances are interrupted by an older woman with a sinister air (real-life occult practitioner Marjorie Cameron). Johnny becomes even more determined to woo Mora, who is employed by her guardian, crusty Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), as a mermaid at the pier’s sideshow. She even lives above the carousel. Things only get stranger in Harrington’s moody, black-and-white world. The director mines the eerie carnival-esque setting and its inherent darkness and mystery, even as the tranquility of the California beach setting and boardwalk provide an ironic counterpoint. Much of Night Tide is shot in daylight, adding to the feeling of mounting dread on the picturesque pier.
Harrington, who had directed outré film shorts early in his career and would go on to work behind the camera of such television programs as Charlie’s Angels and Dynasty, lets the film unfold deliberately. Though only 85 minutes in length, the mystery is slowly paced, and it emphasizes its creepy yet mesmerizing atmosphere. Captain Murdock describes Mora as “the strangest creature in captivity” and “the thrill of your life” as he tries to entice passersby to view the “mermaid,” and the audience identifies with Johnny as he has to determine: is she really from Mykonos, as she claims? Or from somewhere else entirely...?
Night Tide isn’t without cliché, such as when Johnny and Mora draw closer on the beach and the waves duly crash. It even threatens to turn into a melodrama when it’s revealed that Mora’s two previous boyfriends both perished in drowning accidents. But the movie works, and has moments of surprising depth as well as a noir-esque feel. When it’s observed that “I guess we’re all a little afraid of what we love,” it’s clear to the audience that Johnny is afraid of Mora, and Mora of the sea itself. Hopper’s sailor from a broken home in Denver, Colorado exudes a tentative charm, and Lawson’s Mora is appropriately cool yet alluring. One of the most memorable performances comes from Cameron as The Water Witch (never called so in the film itself), whose presence signals danger. Gavin Muir’s warped Captain, who lives in a creepy home in a rundown area of Venice, gives another delightful, off-kilter portrayal.
There’s a foreboding sense that everybody in the movie other than Johnny is holding something back, and harboring some kind of secret. Yet even after a nightmarish evening and then a fateful diving trip, Johnny finds himself inexorably drawn back to the seedy world of Tilt-a-Whirls, ferris wheels, and supposed escapism. The stark black-and-white photography by Vilis Lapenieks (Kojak, Toma) lends surrealism to even these familiar sights, and nostalgia buffs will certainly relish the location scenery. (The late, lamented Pacific Ocean Park, intended to compete with Disneyland, is even visible.) A mundane final sequence is a bit of a letdown considering the fantastical qualities that preceded it, but the enduring mystery of the Water Witch leaves an ambiguous yet ultimately satisfying (if completely expected) loose end.
Kino’s 1080p presentation “from 35mm archival film elements” is to be applauded. As restored by the Academy Film Archive with the support of The Film Foundation and director Harrington, it’s detailed and preserves its filmic quality and grain structure. However, there are numerous occasions of print damage and deterioration such as specks and scratches. The 2.0 mono audio track is solid, although the lack of subtitles is disappointing. The score by veteran composer David Raksin (Laura, The Bad and the Beautiful) adds a touch of class to Night Tide with its ethereal flute, ominous oboe and strings. Music plays a vivid role in the movie, from the jazz of the opening scenes to the beat of the bongos that score a frenzied dance by Mora.
Kino has supplied the new Night Tide BD with a few choice extras. Curtis Harrington is interviewed on two episodes of the public access television program Sinister Images, with the first episode including discussion of Night Tide and the second focusing on his later career. Harrington, who died in 2007 at the age of 80, is also heard on the commentary track recorded with Dennis Hopper, who passed away in 2010 at 74. (Ironically, Hopper died in Venice, California, a setting in Night Tide.) This commentary is enjoyable throughout, especially for those who know the movie well and are looking for a few extra tidbits about its creation. The theatrical trailer is also here, along with trailers for Kino’s other BD releases White Zombie and The Stranger.
Haunting, atmospheric and artful, Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide goes surprisingly deep for a low-budget, so-called horror flick. Kino’s Blu-ray release won’t likely be bettered any time soon.
- Joe Marchese