Night Tide (1963), the debut film of Curtis Harrington (the subject of an upcoming tribute at Anthology), is one of the more credulous movies ever made. A naive sailor (an impossibly young Dennis Hopper) visiting the Santa Monica pier falls in love with a girl who lives above a merry-go-round and works on the pier as one of the attractions — Mora the Mermaid. When Hopper finds out that she may actually be a mythic sea creature, the tropes Harrington piles on — a black-clad woman speaking an unknown language, a beachside drum circle, a tarot reading — suggest he buys into the supernatural as much as his characters.
A decade later, the Depression-era thriller (and authentic overlooked classic of American cinema) What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971) displays a more developed sense of cynicism. Peppy Debbie Reynolds and unstable Shelley Winters, uneasy friends and mothers of two recently convicted Midwestern thrill killers, relocate to Hollywood and start a school for aspiring kiddie stars, allowing for some Day of the Locust-lite satire of Reynolds’s delusions of potential stardom along with Winters’s gradual mental collapse and an atmosphere of gathering creepiness. It comes together best at the kids’ big performance, when Winters cracks up backstage during a gleeful send-up musical sequence.
The film is available on a (highly recommended) double-sided DVD with Harrington’s English manor Hansel and Gretel relocation Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (regrettably absent from the Anthology tribute). Both are less horror movies than odes to the boundless weirdness of Shelley Winters; Harrington is wryly attentive to her loopy performance as a cooing, mumbling, cackling widow who sings lullabies to the disintegrating corpse of her dead daughter in the latter, and, in the former, uses her to simultaneously hilarious and ominous effect: wait for the long shot of Shelly Winters sitting alone in rocking chair with a white rabbit on her lap, listening to a radio sermon and eating bon-bons.
In The Killing Kind (1973), the unsettling touches are more sordid: a rat crawling over the abandoned body of murder victim Cindy Williams(!) gets closer to the exploitation film than Harrington had been before. Tony Crechales and George Edwards script has an impressively layered, gnarled take on the relationship between a convicted (but probably impotent) rapist and his overaffectionate mother. That they run a boarding house together invites the Psycho comparisons — good thing Harrington, with his sense of ambiguity and knack for the uncanny, is one of the few filmmakers alive who can stand up to them.