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It doesn't look much like a horror movie. Curtis Harrington's Night Tide (1961) is a thing of sunshine and jazz music, set at a seaside amusement park. Instead of assaulting the viewer with gore or violence, Harrington wrenches suspense from such subtleties as a scene where a girl eats a fish, and then catches a seagull with her bare hands. Night Tide has genre elements--Dennis Hopper plays a sailor who falls in love with a girl who believes herself to be a mermaid--but the casual naturalism of the film seems unrelated to the world of gothic monsters and bug-eyed aliens that dominated horror fare of the early 1960s. If audiences had ever seen anything quite like this before, it would have been in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (1960). Like Godard's groundbreaking masterpiece, Harrington's film exploits the genre elements to provide structure to a film that presents itself as slice-of-life glimpse of a disaffected youth culture. The distributors recognized the affinity, and played it up as a marketing strategy. The press kit proclaimed Night Tide as a "unique American New Wave thriller," and went on to enumerate Harrington's work in experimental film.
Let's set aside the incongruity of a movie company trying to sell a teen-oriented horror flick on the basis that it was an arthouse film in the French tradition made by an underground artist. That's weird, but it's not even the weirdest aspect of all this. This is the early 1960s we're talking about, when underground filmmaking was simultaneously something vibrant and important while also being something so outré that it didn't have a name. By the time anyone started talking about an "underground cinema movement," Harrington had already stopped being a part of that movement. He had "graduated," if that's the term, from the unprofessional margins of the film world to Hollywood itself, and in making that transition blazed a path for others to follow: David Lynch, David Cronenberg, John Waters...
Withhold your applause for a moment. In the journey from celebrated avant-garde artist to commercial filmmaker of modest renown, Harrington placed his reputation at risk. Many of his staunch advocates and admirers from the old days saw his new professional success as a mark of corruption. He had sold out, and cast retroactive doubt on how artistic his early work could really have been. For other critics, though, Harrington's life's work revealed itself to be of a single piece, connected throughout by a consistency of tone and thematic preoccupation.
For all intents and purposes, Curtis Harrington's wild ride begins sometime after 1935 (the precise date is lost to us) when he first saw Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934). The young Curtis was already fascinated by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and here was a film that took inspiration from the pages of Poe's stories to create a work of cinematic energy. Harrington took it as a blueprint, a treasure map, a manifesto. At the tender age of sixteen, he took an 8mm home movie camera and shot a short film based on The Fall of the House of Usher. He had no way of knowing that exactly sixty years later he would once again make a short film about Usher, bookends to a Poe-addled life. But he did know that if he wanted to keep exploring his hunger to bring the queasy nightmare world of Poe's fiction onto movie screens, he would need better tools and techniques. So he enrolled in film school at USC.
Equipped with a film-school education and access to 16mm cameras, Harrington embarked on a cycle of short films, beginning with the 1946 short Fragment of Seeking based on the myth of Narcissus. He kept making such mini-movies until 1955. Historians call them "experimental" or "avant-garde" or "underground." As far as he was concerned, he was just making movies. Whether based on myths or on the writings of Poe, Harrington's films followed a familiar pattern. He depicted powerful women victimizing weaker men. It was a theme he would not let go, even as he moved on into the Hollywood mainstream.
Harrington's shorts circulated through the country, distributed by the Creative Film Society. They continued to make the rounds of art museums, colleges and film societies into the 1970s, seeding inspiration to the next generation of aspiring film artists.
Making experimental short films does not pay the bills. Harrington's day job was film critic. He wrote a book on Joseph von Sternberg, and contributed to Cahiers du Cinema, the journal that propelled Godard and the French New Wave onto the scene. He moved briefly to France to work more closely with the French New Wave writers, and there aided Henri Langlois, founder of the fabled Cinémathèque Française. On the side, he also wrote stories--like Secrets of the Sea. Upon returning to Los Angeles at the close of the 1950s, Harrington started to think Secrets might make a good movie. His experimental work had been well received, but that didn't easily translate into getting financing for a full-length feature. Harrington won an agreement from Roger Corman that Filmways would distribute the picture if it got made, and then he successfully borrowed against that distribution guarantee to raise the $50,000 needed to make the movie.
Dennis Hopper was already an emerging movie star associated with teenage rebellion. He was familiar with Harrington's shorts and keen to collaborate. Snagging one of the country's hot up-and-coming young stars was a major coup for what was, admittedly, a low-budget exploitation thriller. As it happened, the rest of the cast was not quite to the same level. As Mora, the tragic girl convinced she is a mermaid, Harrington cast Linda Lawson. Together she and Hopper delivered alienated performances that were completely appropriate to the material and for the bohemian audience to whom the film was aimed, but which left the film feeling cold. Lawson went on to a minor career as a character actor on television. Luana Anders had a supporting role as Hopper's alternate love interest. Anders was a member of Roger Corman's stock company and a recurring face in the world of low-budget genre pictures. She continued her association with Hopper later in the decade in the film Easy Rider (1969). Harrington had hoped to cast Peter Lorre in the role of the salty old sea captain who serves as Mora's surrogate father, sideshow barker, and Svengali-like master. Lorre proved too expensive, which left Gavin Muir to provide a capable if unremarkable replacement. Some roles went to non-actors: the part of the wraith-like woman who seems to haunt Mora's every move was played by a genuine occultist who claimed to have actual psychic abilities.
Harrington's work in experimental short films did not equip him to communicate well with actors, and he relied on Hopper to serve as a liaison to the cast. This was sometimes a lost cause. For example, the actor playing the police inspector had not been given a script and arrived on the set unavoidably unprepared. Harrington was too inexperienced to recognize the problem. Looking back with hindsight, he felt the part should have been recast, but such ideas never occurred to Harrington at the time.
Hopper may have helped smooth relations between the inexperienced Harrington and the cast, but no one served a comparable function on behalf of the crew. Script supervisor Joyce King notes that Harrington's diffidence kept the crew on edge through a difficult shoot. In a move that would be impossible in today's insurance-driven environment, Dennis Hopper actually performed his scuba-diving scene himself (although a stunt double was used for his co-star, Linda Lawson). Nothing untoward happened during that risky scene, but Hopper did wreak havoc by injuring himself shortly afterwards. Hopper drove into town on a "borrowed" motor scooter, picked up a date, got drunk, and promptly crashed the bike. Luckily no one was seriously injured, but the star was hospitalized for ten days, severely disrupting the shoot in what were to have been its final days.
Night Tide's cinematography is officially credited to Vilis Lapenieks, but in subsequent years Harrington has revealed that much of the picture was actually photographed by Floyd Crosby. Crosby is a distinguished D.P. with an impressive resume, who got his start filming F.W. Murnau's last production, Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931). Between them, Crosby and Lapenieks captured images that eschewed the usual tricks of gothic atmosphere, but found a sense of unease in pictorial beauty.
The tension between the film's artistic ambitions and its exploitation roots led to a spirited debate even before Night Tide was released. Harrington took it to the Venice Film Festival in 1961 and won tremendous acclaim from Italian critics. American critical praise soon followed, as did the backlash from avant-garde purists who resented its genre trappings. Meanwhile, the film itself was tied up in a legal battle with one of the investors who demanded his money back. It was not until 1963 that the investor was placated and the movie was finally allowed into general distribution, as the bottom half of a double bill with Corman's The Raven.
Night Tide was never a blockbuster hit, but the nice thing about spending just $50 grand is that it never had to be. A dreamlike thing that works its magic in unconventional ways, Night Tide continues to impress viewers with its suspenseful idiosyncrasies. Harrington went on to make more conventional thrillers, some of them quite good, but would remain best remembered for this strange little vision of a boy and his haunted girlfriend by the sea.
Producer: Aram Katarian
Director: Curtis Harrington
Screenplay: Curtis Harrington (screenplay, short story)
Cinematography: Vilis Lapenieks; Floyd Crosby (uncredited)
Music: David Raksin
Film Editing: Jodie Copelan
Cast: Dennis Hopper (Johnny Drake), Linda Lawson (Mora), Gavin Muir (Capt. Samuel Murdock), Luana Anders (Ellen Sands), Marjorie Eaton (Madame Romanovitch), Tom Dillon (Merry-Go-Round Operator, Ellen's Grandfather), H.E. West (Lt. Henderson), Ben Roseman, Cameron (Water Witch), Chaino (Head Bongo Player).
by David Kalat
Brian Albright, Wild Beyond Belief: Interviews with Exploitation Filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s
Steven R. Bissette, "Curtis Harrington and the Underground Roots of the Modern Horror Film," Underground USA: Filmmaking Beyond the Hollywood Canon, edited by Xavier Mendik and Steven Jay Schneider
Curtis Harrington and Dennis Hopper, audio commentary to Night Tide DVD
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