Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Night Tide (1961)

... aka: Girl from Beneath the Sea, The
... aka: Muerte en el fondo del mar (Death on the Seabed)

Directed by:
Curtis Harrington

"I guess we're all a little afraid of what we love."

After making numerous shorts, this was Harrington's feature film debut, which took a decent amount of time to move from the printed page to the big screen. Harrington had written an unpublished short story titled "The Secrets of the Sea" some time in the mid-50s. He then turned it into a script called "The Girl from Beneath the Sea," which he sold to Roger Corman in 1956. The film finally was made in 1960 through an independent company called Virgo Productions on a budget of, according to the director himself, 75,000 dollars. Before it could be released, a lab loan defaulted and legal action was in the works when Corman (who had helped Harrington raise the initial budget) stepped in to save things. Corman then struck up an agreement with the lab to return the money owed after the film's release. Night Tide debuted at the Venice Film Festival in 1961 before Corman's company AIP got the film into general release in 1963 (where it was often double-billed with The Raven) and the rest is history.

While on leave, sailor Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper) goes to a Venice Beach nightclub to listen to a jazz combo and spots the beautiful and mysterious brunette Mora (Linda Lawson) sitting all by herself. She agrees to let him walk her back to her apartment and the two arrange a date for the following morning. When Johnny shows up for brunch, Mora discusses her great love for seafood, explains that she is originally from "an island" and that she now works as a mermaid at a sideshow attraction on the pier. She serves him fresh mackerel and then a seagull strangely lands on her lap and allows her to pet it. Johnny finds himself quickly falling in love with Mora, but as is usually the case with young love, one often has no clue what they're really getting themselves into until it's too late. And the more Johnny learns about Mora, the more he begins to think his own life may be in danger.

The supporting characters each fill in a piece to the mystery. Gavin Muir plays Mora's boss and guardian Captain Samuel Murdock, formerly of the British Navy. He tells Johnny he found Mora on a Greek isle and has been taking care of her ever since. He also wastes no time trying to dissuade Johnny from seeing her by suggesting she may be part of a race of sirens, who are known for luring seamen to their deaths. Considering the Captain keeps a jar containing a pickled human hand in his liquor cabinet, he may not be so trustworthy himself. But Ellen (Luana Anders), who works at her grandfather's merry-go-round attraction, pretty much confirms all this by informing Johnny that Mora's last two boyfriends have both wound up dead. Though no evidence was found to implicate anyone, a policeman (H.E. West) is still keeping a close eye on her. Either way, something is up and since Johnny has fallen for Mora, he's determined to find out just what, even if it kills him.

Around the time this was made, Harrington had been hobnobbing with Kenneth Anger and other underground filmmaker types and making his own experimental short films. This marked an attempt to bridge the gap between that world and the more mainstream, commercially viable one. The results are a mixed bag. The film is moody, intriguing and ambiguous to start, nicely capturing a feeling of isolation and loneliness, but it's also extremely slow-going and some scenes feel extraneous. The acting is neither great nor terrible (though it's interesting seeing a young, clean-cut and handsome Hopper [as opposed to his later unshaven, filthy hippie and middle-aged psycho personas] playing a genuinely nice character for a change) and there are so many loose ends left at the end it barely qualifies as a legitimate resolution.

Harrington claims to have been inspired by Poe's mournful poem "Annabel Lee" (which is where the title comes from and is even quoted at the very end), but he was also just as influenced by the classic Cat People (1942) and copies numerous scenes and ideas from it, most notably the famous "my sister" moment when a black-clad "Water Witch" (Marjorie Cameron, subject of the 1956 Harrington short The Wormwood Star) shows up at the club and mutters something in Greek to Mora. All in all, I wasn't quite blown away by this one but it's still interesting and certainly worth a look.

The cast also includes Marjorie Eaton as a psychic and tarot card reader and Bruno VeSota, who can be seen briefly walking down a flight of stairs (and also apparently did this film's makeup). Though Vilis Lapenieks receives sole credit as the film's cinematographer, Floyd Crosby actually shot much of the interiors sans credit. Having fallen into the public domain, this is an extremely easy movie to find, but there are both very good and very bad quality prints on the market. Up until the 2013 Blu-ray release from Kino, Image Entertainment's DVD release was the best this had ever looked. The latter also comes with a very interesting commentary track (recorded in 1997) with Harrington and Hopper.

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