Appellate Judge Tom Becker wrote a poem about a beautiful, dead serial killer: "Hannibal Lee."
Was she human?
Night Tide should be required viewing for anyone making a low-budget, independent horror movie.
Granted, Night Tide isn't a horror film the way we've come to expect horror films to be; there are no zombies or monsters, no slashings or dismemberments. The horror here is insidious; it creeps up on you, powered by atmosphere and suggestion.
Johnny (Dennis Hopper, Blue Velvet) is a sailor on leave in a California shore town. He meets Mora (Linda Lawson, Sometimes a Great Notion) at a jazz club. She's beautiful and mysterious, and seems to want nothing to do with him. When an older woman speaks to her in a foreign language, she become agitated and leaves, but Johnny follows her. He's friendly and open, and she eventually agrees to see him again.
Mora works at a carnival side show; she's a mermaid. Johnny learns that Mora was brought to America from Greece as a child by a naval officer (Gavin Muir, Johnny Trouble), who runs her side show exhibit.
As they become closer, Johnny learns that Mora believes she's a descendent of the mythic Sirens, the beautiful sea creatures who lured sailors to their deaths.
But Johnny learns something else about Mora, something far more disturbing: her last two boyfriends, nice young men like Johnny, both died mysteriously, their bodies found washed up on the beach. Could Mora really be a sea creature who lures men to their deaths?
Director Curtis Harrington started making short, experimental films as a teenager; he worked with Kenneth Anger on his landmark short Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. Years later, Harrington made lower-rent cult favorites like Ruby, What's the Matter with Helen?, The Killing Kind, and the TV movie How Awful About Allan. Night Tide was his first feature, and arguably, his best; like its at the time neglected contemporary Carnival of Souls, it's a strong and haunting meld of art and genre.
Harrington made Night Tide on a miniscule budget—some accounts say $25,000, others $50,000. There are no special effects to speak of, or big action scenes of any kind; the film succeeds because of the intelligence and sensitivity of its creator, and the craftsmanship on both sides of the camera.
Beautiful, moody, and melancholy, Night Tide is a simple story, but itâ€™s effectively told. Harrington drew his inspiration from literary sources, include Edgar Allan Poe's poem "Annabelle Lee," which is quoted as an endnote for the film.
The film is beautifully atmospheric. The cinematography by Vilis Lapenieks somehow makes sunny, daylight scenes of Venice Beach seem as sinister as the dark, and the score by David Raksin is sublime and evocative.
Linda Lawson is perfectly enigmatic as the elusive Mora, but it's Hopper's performance that makes the film so poignant: sweet, earnest, trusting, he's clearly no match for the demons that haunt the apparently doomed Mora.
Harrington makes good use of the carnival background without ever giving us those "scary circus" scenes of crowds or distorted perception. Instead, he introduces just a few midway denizens, including a man who runs the merry-go-round with his granddaughter (the wonderful Luana Anders, Dementia 13) and fortune teller (Marjorie Eaton, Monstrosity) who reads Johnny's Tarot. In this scene, Harrington again defies expectations: rather than the usual whipping out of the death card (accompanied by an ominous music cue), the Tarot reading is done without the standard exploitation trappings and becomes, instead, a subtle, slightly disturbing sequence in which the psychic actually tries to help Johnny.
Night Tide (Blu-ray) comes from Kino Lorber sporting an excellent, remastered image and solid LPCM mono soundtrack. The black-and-white film looks very good in high-def, with excellent contrast, fine detail, and a few print imperfections to remind us that this is a low-budget film made over 50 years ago. The supplements include a commentary with Dennis Hopper and Curtis Harrington, ported from an earlier release, and a pair of interviews from 1987 that Harrington did for a cable TV show with writer David Del Valle.
Highly recommended; not guilty.
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