Horror cinema has gone through waves, as any genre of cinema has, throughout the years. From the expressionistic roots in the days of silent film, to the Gothic-influenced Universal pictures, and now, to things like the meta-thriller or the torture porn gore picture, horror cinema evolves seemingly year to year.
However, one of the most interesting touchstone periods in all of horror cinema came in the 1960s, with the rise of American independent pictures like the legendary Night Of The Living Dead and Criterion Collection staple, the unforgettable Carnival Of Souls. And even earlier, in 1961, came a precursor to the atmospheric horror pictures one would find released throughout the decade, both a fresh faced new type of icy cold chiller and a call back to the mood-heavy horror pictures of the Val Lewton style.
Entitled Night Tide, the film bowed in 1961, and was given to the world by director Curtis Harrington. His first credited feature film, the picture marked both the feature debut of the B-movie icon as well as an early lead turn for a fresh-faced Dennis Hopper, and is as drenched in mood as any horror film of its day could have dreamt of being.
Hopper stars here as Johnny Drake, a Navy seaman who is on leave near the Santa Monica pier. Johnny catches the eye of Mora (Linda Lawson), a woman who plays a mermaid in a local carnival. Your typical mystifying brunette, Mora is an entrancing figure, who herself seems to have an intriguing back story. Seemingly under the control of a mysterious, Johnny begins to believe that Mora may actually be a real living mermaid who, with every new full moon, habitually murders various locals. Ostensibly a mix of Cat People atmosphere and The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari dread, Harrington’s film is a thrillingly hazey ride that is more interested in building a world of atmosphere than general cheap scares.
Oddly enough, while he’s become a seemingly forgotten cult filmmaker, Harrington’s at the very top of his game here. With gorgeous black and white photography from cinematographer Vilis Lapenieks, the film’s overall aesthetic is utterly hypnotic, feeling very much like a precursor to the better, and more evolved horror classic, Carnival Of Souls. Defiantly haunting, the film also has the sense of decay that one sees in New Hollywood pictures like The King Of Marvin Gardens, really adding a great sense of world building to the film. It doesn’t feel like a picture shot in this actual world, but instead a film shot in a universe not so far off, just a tad heightened. The question of whether or not the love interest here is actually a mermaid rarely matters outside of continuing the narrative and giving it momentum, instead finding much of the film’s actual story to be in complete service of its aesthetic. There are shots here (particularly one of Hopper walking up to a younger child) that feel ripped right out the films of Lynch or any of his experimental contemporaries, turning this film into what feels very much like an extremely early venture from the wild haired auteur.
Very much a cult film legend, or at least one would argue he is seen as that more than a Hollywood icon, the late Dennis Hopper took this as his first leading role, and it is oddly fitting that this is where he’d find his first real break out leading performance. Hopper is startlingly good here, a fresh faced youngster who uses his bizarrely gorgeous features to paint a tale of romance and terror, as is his love interest Linda Lawson, with the two of them finding some really great chemistry. However, as mentioned above, the film isn’t truly about their story, nor should a viewer be all that entranced by it. The film sees these two as one would see characters in a piece of poetry. Little is really known about anyone involved here, or at least details that really play into the narrative, instead finding them as extensions of a director far more interested in crafting a piece of purely visual cinema. Like a sailors lament, the film only strays from its poetic style occasionally (primarily in the rather underwhelming final act), but for the most part this is just an example of yet another entrancing lead performance by Hopper. A far cry from a film like Blue Velvet or Hoosiers, the film proves that very few cult actors were as versatile as Hopper was.
Now, while the film may not seem like much more than a curio for those interested in the evolution of horror cinema, this new Blu-ray from Kino is revelatory. With a solid transfer based on a 2007 restoration from The Film Foundation, the film looks as good as it ever has, and sounds even better. There is a rather great commentary with Harrington and Hopper, as well as an insightful two part interview with Harrington from 1987. The film may not be a bewilderingly vital classic, but as an example of yet another evolution of one of today’s most intriguing genres, it stands as a thrilling B-movie, made for no money, and an introduction for a director that would go on to have a bizarrely eclectic and exciting career.