A lonely sailor, Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper), meets the beautiful, mysterious Mora (Linda Lawson) who performs as a mermaid on the Santa Monica Pier. After they become lovers, Johnny discovers that Mora's past two boyfriends inexplicably disappeared. As his suspicions grow, Mora's doomed and sinister past is slowly revealed. In his first leading role, Hopper is captivating as the naive and eager Johnny. Like Val Lewton's "The Cat People," Curtis Harrington's "Night Tide" is hypnotic and eerie, macabre and haunting.
No ordinary cult film, Night Tide covers a variety of different waterfronts. It's a film from the American underground, it's a horror movie, and it's an early example of independent cinema (before there was such a term). Shot in 1960, it's also a strangely haunting artifact of its time. Night Tide was written and directed by Curtis Harrington, a member of the experimental avant-garde of the '50s who went on to make the atmospheric shocker Games and many an episode of Dynasty. Mounted on the cheap, and shot on authentic locations in Santa Monica and crumbling Venice, California, Night Tide has a loose, lyrical quality not found outside Cassavetes and Godard films of the same era.
Dennis Hopper, whose youthful looks and Method style were still intact at this point, plays an innocent sailor at liberty in a coastal town; he falls for a girl who plays a mermaid at the sideshow. Or is she really a mermaid? Inspired by Val Lewton's horror classic Cat People, Harrington cooks up a supernatural stew with the suggestion that the willowy lass is one of the "Sea People," called back to her ocean home by a weird sea witch (played by a real-life occult celebrity called Cameron). Yet Night Tide only occasionally feels like a horror movie; with its naturalistic exteriors, bongos, and coffeehouse atmosphere, it's more a slice of poetic bohemia. Luana Anders, who should have had a major movie career but later became a B-movie leading lady, is wonderfully fresh as the good girl, and the music score by Hollywood pro David Raksin (Laura) is inventive and offbeat. Shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1961, the film did not secure a U.S. release until 1963, when its New-Wave-ish style probably looked less innovative. Seen today, Night Tide is both a lovely mood piece and a look back at a peculiar moment in American moviemaking, and either way a bit of low-cost enchantment. --Robert Horton