Night Tide was Curtis Harrington’s debut feature after spending the entire ’40s and ’50s in the burgeoning underground/avant-garde/experimental/whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it film world—Harrington seems fairly dismissive of all the various terms in interviews. He was a lifelong friend and sometimes antagonist of Kenneth Anger: they collaborated, with Harrington acting as cinematographer on Anger’s Puce Moment and acting in Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. He also had a deep love of horror movies that began when he was a child. He grew up during the ’30s, so he got to see most of the Universal Horror movies on their first or seconds runs.
Harrington also had an interest in the occult, and befriended Marjorie Cameron soon after Jack Parsons’ death. For those who don’t know, Jack was a rocket scientist/occultist/left-libertarian who died under still mysterious circumstances in an explosion, his work is partly responsible for the fuel that eventually got us to the moon. Harrington’s love of old horror movies and the occult plays heavily into Night Tide, and he even cast Marjorie in a role as the “Water Witch” whose presence hovers over the entire film—it was a role she was born to play.
During the period when Harrington was showing his early underground films in beatnik coffee houses, a young actor named Dennis Hopper saw them, responded to them and befriended Harrington. Naturally, when Night Tide came together, Harrington asked Hopper to star as the young sailor Johnny Drake. Hopper was quickly making a name for himself, with small roles in two of the three films James Dean starred in, Rebel Without a Cause and Giant. Harrington was also gay, and the depiction of Hopper as this young handsome sailor is undeniably homoerotic. He would touch on his sexuality more explicitly in his early short Fragment of Seeking. That film would often be billed alongside Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks, which is a film about a man who fantasies about being raped by sailors.
Hopper’s performance is an early highlight in a career that didn’t really get going until the end of the ’60s with Easy Rider, which he also directed. The film’s plot is relatively simple: Johnny is on shore leave, meets an attractive but mysterious dark-haired girl who plays a mermaid at a carnival, and soon strange things start happening. Johnny soon suspects that she might be a murderous real-life mermaid. Linda Lawson plays the mermaid, Mora, in her most memorable film role. Lawson did lots of ’50s and ’60s television, but didn’t appear in many films: a supporting role in Paul Newman’s adaptation of Sometimes a Great Notion was her most high-profile part.
This new release was restored by Nicolas Winding Refn, who ended up owning the original negative, and the film has never looked better. It was in public domain hell for decades. Refn knew Harrington a little bit near the end of his life (Harrington passed away in 2007), and I’ve had it on good authority that Harrington was one of the kindest people in Hollywood. He would throw legendary parties at his house, and he would always encourage his invited attendees to bring somebody with them. Night Tide remains a key film in the development of the New Hollywood and beyond, and is a wondrous piece of phantasmagoric filmmaking.
The release from Indicator is a treasure trove, starting with two commentaries, one from Harrington and Hopper recorded back in 1998, and a new one with Tony Rayns. To round off the first disc there are some lengthy interviews with Harrington, including a two-parter with his friendDavid Del Valle, made for his Sinister Image show in the ’80s, alongside the usual trailer and stills gallery. The second disc has all Harrington’s early shorts plus his final film Usher, which was another adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s House of Usher, his first filmmaking attempt at age 14 is, remarkably, also included. The 80-page booklet features many pieces by Harrington himself on his films, but also on horror cinema in general, and reproductions of old lobby cards are also included.