NIGHT TIDE (1961) (Blu-ray)
Director: Curtis Harrington
Kino Lorber/ Kino Classics

Curtis Harrington’s haunting black & white fantasy NIGHT TIDE, his first feature, makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Kino Classics.

NIGHT TIDE commences on the extraordinary aquatic setting of Santa Monica Pier as a young sailor John ("Johnny") Drake (a babyfaced Dennis Hopper, THE TRIP) takes in the arcades as waves splash underneath and the sound of seagulls fills the air. Inserting a coin into a machine slot, he smiles as instant black and white photos are taken of his innocent countenance. He then visits the merry-go-round and is enraptured as a child.

Johnny then takes a stroll that will change his life forever when he wanders into a Venice Beach bar called The Blue Grotto, where a jazz combo has everyone’s attention. He nurses a beer and spots a local beauty with dark hair, a girl named Mora (television actress Linda Lawson, LET’S KILL UNCLE). He is captivated with her and comes over to join her at her table. Their conversation is interrupted as a thin blond woman of noble demeanor (Marjorie Cameron) approaches Mora speaking something very threatening in Russian or another Slavic tongue (recalling the "cat-to-cat" encounter in Val Lewton's classic CAT PEOPLE, a direct homage). Unnerved, Mora leaves with Johnny following her along the pier. He begs to see her again and her iciness melts somewhat and she agrees to share breakfast with him the next day.

The following Sunday morning, Johnny has come back to see Mora. He is attracted by the merry-go-round on the pier and heads on up to visit her above the arcade in a spectacular seaside apartment. Mora has prepared an unusual seafood breakfast and the two begin to converse about their lives. She then makes a startling admission to Johnny: she not only admits to being an "attraction" but a REAL mermaid at that! Mora has a history of destroying former boyfriends which is brought to Johnny's attention by everyone around him, including a friendly carousel operator (Luana Anders, DEMENTIA 13) who seems genuinely interested in the boy's welfare. Is Johnny in danger of becoming Mora's next victim? A fortune-teller (Marjorie Eaton, THE ATOMIC BRAIN) does his Tarot reading and when the card meant to represent Johnny is The Hanged Man, the answer seems to point to a definite YES!

Writer/director Curtis Harrington had been a formidable talent in early American avant garde cinema and his numerous forays in experimental film are testament to his genius. Born in Banning, California, Harrington dreamt of coming to Hollywood and becoming a filmmaker himself. He distinguished himself with a number of short films (i.e. "Fragment of Seeking," "The Assignation" and others) which were ghostly mood pieces he shall always be remembered for. His European travels included living in Paris as a youth, and had a friendship with James Whale, one of the greatest genre directors of all time. Dennis Hopper gives an outstanding performance as the innocent, lovesick sailor on leave in one of his earliest starring film roles. Hopper had shown great promise and this entry in his filmography is one of the key moments in his career. He brought his training in method acting to the proceedings and even helped Harrington understand better this school of thought. Hopper is endearing in his role and one feels empathy for his plight. Hopper would go on to key roles in EASY RIDER (1969), David Lynch's masterful BLUE VELVET (1986) and many others before his death in 2010. Linda Lawson recalled great difficulty in dealing with the ever-erratic behavior of Hopper. One afternoon he arrived at her apartment to rehearse and instead of working, behaved like a spoiled child and crawled under her kitchen table and clowned around to the point that she had to ask him to leave. Her relationship with Hopper soured after that and she felt that his talent was going to be jeopardized by his addictions (obviously, he did just fine, mounting a big-time comeback in the last 25 years of his career).

Chicago-born and British educated character actor Gavin Muir gives the final performance of his career as the owner of Mora the Mermaid's sideshow attraction and in fact, the man responsible for bringing her back during his seafaring days from the Greek isle of Mykonos,in effect the mermaid's guardian. Muir had appeared in such films as SON OF DR. JEKYLL (1951), ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN (1951) as well as two key, classic Universal Pictures features with Basil Rathbone during the Forties, SHERLOCK HOLMES FACES DEATH (1943) and SHERLOCK HOLMES IN WASHINGTON (1943). He retired after NIGHT TIDE and passed away in 1972. Luana Anders gives a very sympathetic performance in a small role and remained a close friend of Harrington for the rest of her life which was cut short by cancer. She would go on to work that same year with Roger Corman, Vincent Price and Barbara Steele in the celebrated PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961).

The sterling black and white photography by Vilis Lapenieks and an uncredited Floyd Crosby (who had studied under Murnau and was the father of David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young!) is outstanding and dream-like, reminiscent of the best of Cocteau with the timeless, ancient, mythic beauty of Greek tragedy. The original score for NIGHT TIDE was the work of composer David Raksin, whose credits included such diverse fare as the 1950s gangster bio AL CAPONE (1959) with Rod Steiger, the essential noir masterpiece FORCE OF EVIL (1948) with John Garfield and genre pieces such as 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957) and THE UNDYING MONSTER (1942). He would team with Harrington once again for his WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (1971). His work in NIGHT TIDE is stellar, replete with wind instruments combined with Beat Generation touches. One clever little piece is "The Tell-Tale Harp" which is played in The Blue Grotto at the film's beginning, Harrington's homage to Poe via Raksin.

Like most of the Filmgroup/American International Pictures titles, NIGHT TIDE had fallen into the public domain, spawning numerous DVD editions (the best of these being the Special Edition from Image Entertainment), but Kino’s new Blu-ray is easily the best of the bunch, using a recent restoration by the Academy Film Archive as the transfer source. The film is presented in 1080p in a 1.66:1 anamorphic aspect ratio. Although the opening credits look a bit soft and there is some occasional speckling (as well as one short sequence with a slight jitter to it), the Blu-ray looks quite nice, with sharp imagery, truly deep blacks, appropriately bright white levels, nicely balanced contrasts and a sufficient amount of natural grain in check. The audio comes in a PCM 2.0 mono English track, with dialogue being generally clear and sound effects and music having enough punch for such a low budget affair. No subtitle options have been included.

An audio commentary with Harrington and Hopper (sadly, both have since passed away) has been carried over from the 1999 Image Entertainment DVD release. When Hopper is fuzzy on certain details, Harrington fills in with the proper information. Some interesting facts are brought forth on what was a non-studio, largely renegade production: the film cost a mere $28,000 to make (Harrington insists $50,000), Harrington donated a copy early on to Henri Langois of the Cinematheque Francaise, both men were impressed with Raksin's musical score, and the customers in The Blue Grotto café (shot in Hollywood on Cahuenga Street and not at a beach) were friends and not actors. Both Harrington and Hopper recall warmly Lawson and Anders is fondly remembered as a fine actress who should have gone on to larger roles as they had enormous faith in her. Harrington notes his inspiration for the script was a short story titled "Secrets of the Sea." Also, the Gavin Muir part was to have gone to Peter Lorre but his fee was too high for Harrington’s low budget.

Two episodes of the public access show “The Sinister Image” have author and historian David Del Valle interviewing Harrington in 1987, both programs are a pleasure to view, running about 55 minutes in total (and since Harrington has had such a vast career and is such an interesting interview subject, you’ll wish they were much longer). The first show focuses on Harrington’s early career, especially NIGHT TIDE (some very fuzzy clips from it are shown as originally meant to be broadcast) and the second episode focuses on the latter part of his career, touching upon films like GAMES (he originally wanted Marlene Dietrich to star), WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN, WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO? and THE KILLING KIND, and working with such grand actresses as Simone Signoret, Gloria Swanson and Shelley Winters. The original theatrical trailer is included, as are trailers for WHITE ZOMBIE and THE STRANGER. (Christopher Dietrich and George R. Reis)