Night Tide: Attack of the Killer Mermaid?

03/27/2013 4:00 AM |

Night Tide (1961)
Directed by Curtis Harrington
April 1, at 92YTribeca

Director Harrington—a former avant-gardist, Maya Deren disciple, and Kenneth Anger collaborator—launched his feature filmmaking career with this deeply romantic and genuinely unnerving slab of B-movie brilliance. A sort-of noir, Night Tide stars a relatively fresh-faced (that is to say, not yet totally psychotic) Dennis Hopper as Johnny Drake, a naval officer whose shore leave takes a turn for the macabre on Venice Beach, where he meets and falls for boardwalk performer (and professional “mermaid”) Mora (Linda Lawson). Johnny disregards numerous indications that something murderously fishy is afoot: the fact that Mora’s previous two boyfriends died while dating her; her ex-sailor-turned-carny boss’s drunken assertion that she’s a siren; the menacingly silent old women who stalks after her during an otherwise bumpin’ luau; Johnny’s own paranoiac nightmares, in which Mora is associated with mythical sea monsters—while single-mindedly struggling to figure out what exactly his beloved’s deal is.

This mystery/fantasy/beach party hybrid is marked by Harrington’s personalized take on the gracefully graceless American International Pictures house style, yielding a gem of low-budget film poetry composed under the sign of Anger, Deren and Harrington’s future employer, Roger Corman. (Indeed, AIP distributed the film in 1963, two years after its completion.) If nothing else, Night Tide merits a look due to its status as a key transitional work for Hopper—a step out from the shadow of James Dean, away from his intensely wrought rapport with Nicholas Ray, and toward the genre-defying, convention-obliterating madness that became his stock in trade in the latter half of the decade.