Sunday, 29 May 2011
(Curtis Harrington, 1961)
As an unusually subtle and low-key independent b film emerging from an era in which sensationalism was all, Curtis Harrington’s first commercial feature ‘Night Tide’ seems born to be UNDERRATED - an epithet used in probably every capsule review of the movie ever penned, raising the question of precisely how far an underrated film can go before it becomes officially ‘rated’, and perhaps eventually overrated - witness the fate of the two films to which ‘Night Tide’ probably bears closest comparison, Herk Harvey’s ‘Carnival of Souls’ and Jacques Tourneur’s ‘Cat People’.
In fact, maybe one of the factors that has helped keep ‘Night Tide’ under the radar for so long is the sheer weight of the debt it owes to the aforementioned Lewton/Tourneur film. To lay it down straight for ya before we get all mystical later in this review, it must be noted that ‘Night Tide’s storyline is an almost an exact rewrite of ‘Cat People’, with the action moved to the Santa Monica sea-front, and Simone Simon’s potential cat-woman replaced by Linda Lawson’s potential mermaid, Mora.
Drawn into Mora’s orbit when he clumsily tries to pick her up in a beachside jazz bar is Johnny, an impetuous young navy recruit played by none other than Dennis Hopper. Already well-known by this point for his bohemian lifestyle and tough guy/troublemaker screen persona, it is to Hopper’s credit that he manages to make himself so believable here as a fresh-faced innocent, away from home for the first time and awkwardly trying to engage with the world around him. Fusing the character’s eager-to-please naivety with his trademark nervous energy and disconnected stare, Hopper makes for a goofily endearing protagonist, just as Lawson, looking like she’s just stepped off the front of a Les Baxter ‘exotica’ LP, plays the doomed, ethereal, forever unknowable heroine to perfection.
Even the most strident movie-tech snob (is there a movie equivalent of the term ‘muso’? suggestions on a postcard) would have to cop that Harrington’s direction here is excellent too – beautiful, bright photography and eerie, graceful camera movements a speciality – and his scripting’s none too shabby either, aforementioned ‘Cat People’ debt notwithstanding. From the outset, ‘Night Tide’ is clearly the work of a guy trying to position himself a good few notches above yr standard drive-in fare.
Best of all from my point of view though, ‘Night Tide’ excels in that particular kind of careful, hypnotic pacing that that so often seems to accompany films shot in sea-front locations, as events seem to ebb and flow with the tide, imbuing the film with that unique feel of disconnected seaside weirdness that I’m always going on about here.
Were that the sum total of ‘Night Tide’s charms, we could file it as a well made / well acted variation on ‘Cat People’ and get on with our lives, but what really gives the film such an uncanny resonance is it’s setting and unique cultural background. Although it is never directly addressed in the film as such, the rich occult/bohemian/art scene and strange atmosphere of the L.A. beach communities in the late 50s/early ‘60s seems to breath through every pore of Harrington’s film, every detail throwing up a new, unexpected connection that makes ‘Night Tide’ fascinating viewing for any student of mid-century American underground type bru-ha-ha.
If the film’s artier moments seem to recall the languid Cali-mysticism of Maya Deren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’, well perhaps that’s no accident - prior to moving into the commercial film industry, Curtis Harrington was a big name on the West Coast avant garde scene. He assisted Deren and Alexander Hamid on ‘Meshes..’, and worked with Kenneth Anger on ‘Puce Moment’ and ‘Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome’, appearing in the latter as Cesare the Sleepwalker, as well as producing his own portfolio of experimental shorts, notably ‘Fragment of Seeking’ (1946) and the heavily Anger-influenced ‘Wormwood Star’ (1956), a portrait of his fellow ‘..Pleasure Dome’ star Marjorie Cameron.
Bridging the gap between this avant/occult scene and the (relatively) mainstream world Harrington was trying to find his way into at the start of the ‘60s, Cameron reappears in ‘Night Tide’ as the mysterious woman who haunts Mora, calling her back toward the ocean, and it is her unmistakable presence that will immediately have any occult bozos in the audience sitting up and paying attention.
A figure of almost mythical hip/esoteric fascination, Cameron’s legend dates back to her days as the wife and muse of Jet Propulsion Laboratory founder and Crowleyite magus Jack Parsons. An active participant in Parsons’ American branch of Aleister Crowley’s OTO dring the ‘40s, Cameron became the central focus of Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard’s infamous ‘Babalon Working’ in the Mojave Desert – a doomed(?) attempt to realise one of Crowley’s more apocalyptic notions by conceiving a supernatural ‘moonchild’ whose existence would help hasten the end of all creation, or somesuch.
Understandably perhaps, Cameron seems to have dropped out of sight for a while after that. But a few years later, following the various magical and financial battles that resulted from the rivalry between Parsons and Hubbard, culminating in her husand’s much-publicised fiery demise, it is little wonder that Cameron went on to build a reputation for herself as the flame-haired Scarlet Woman of West Coast occultism, a reputation that was immortalised forever by Kenneth Anger – whom she apparently schooled in Thelemic practice – when he cast her as Kali, the claw-handed destroyer in ‘..Pleasuredome’ – an image that I *guarantee* you would recognise from somewhere, even if you have no interest in this stuff whatsoever.
Perhaps it is the resonance of this backstory, or perhaps just her naturally striking visage, but each of the brief appearances Cameron makes in ‘Night Tide’ is pretty thunderous. In some ways, Harrington seems a bit like a reformed alcoholic in the making of this film, trying to stick rigidly to the straight n’ narrow of a linear, narrative film, whilst Cameron seems like some demon on his shoulder, pulling the film back toward the otherness of abstraction and magick, just as her unnamed character seems to want to drag Johnny and Mora back into the subconscious depths of the ocean.
Watching ‘Night Tide’ with knowledge of Harrington’s background, you can almost picture him desperately trying to convince distributors that he’s a regular guy plugging a regular movie, but all in vain. Despite his best efforts, there is something here that is just off; not just the dreamy atmospherics or the suspicion that he’s taking all this psychological ocean-ambiguity shtick a bit more seriously than is really becoming for a shlock movie guy, but just in telling details like the fact that this is probably the first horror(ish) movie I’ve ever seen that actually features a believable tarot reading. Sure, the seaside carnival’s resident Countess Romanov type gives it some theatrical hoo-hah, but she’s essentially laying down the cards for Johnny in exactly the way your old how-to book on the Tarot told you to, with typically perplexing and long-winded results for the, er, ‘uninitiated’ (read: BORED) viewer.
(I thought it was pretty cool that Hopper’s ‘fate’ card is The Hanged Man – a result that oddly doesn’t fit his character in the movie very well, but suits the weird path of his later life and character pretty perfectly.)
The scene is which ‘Night Tide’ relapses most severely into the realm-of-the-weird comes when Johnny tails Cameron’s mysterious woman, apparently following her all the way to boho-haunted Venice Beach – a locale that the film presents as being some kind of treacherous, spectral zone that physically resembles a deserted Turkish fishing village or something – where he traces his quarry back to – where else? – 777 Baabek Lane.
Knocking on the door, Johnny is surprised to find himself greeted by Mora’s business partner/adopted father Captain Sam, who denies all knowledge of any mysterious woman, but is nonetheless happy to fill Johnny’s head with all kinds of wonderfully creepy blather about the ‘sea people’ and Mora’s true place among them – a great, forboding scene and a great performance from Gavin Muir.
Captain Sam himself is another bohemian beach community archetype of course – a kind of avuncular Henry Miller figure, drinking away his twilight years with anyone who’ll hang around long enough to listen to his bullish reminiscences. Even aside from all the magickal stuff, ‘Night Tide’ has a nocturnal boho charm that’s hard to define, but impossible to ignore.
The modal jazz being played in the cellar bar (‘The Blue Grotto’) in the opening sequence is fucking good, and characters seem to drift randomly through the day, staring out to sea, drinkin’ coffee, drinking in the silence before the crowds arrive for the funfair. Another perfeact example of those strange, self-contained horror-movie worlds that I just want to go and live in.
If one thing denies ‘Night Tide’ it’s richly deserved ‘cult classic’ status though, it is probably the ending. After the slow-burning dream-feel of the rest of the picture, the conclusion seems perfunctory and stupid on first viewing, giving every indication of a crass, producer-enforced happy ending that fails to even honour the basic Weird Tales convention that demands a naive protagonist be darkly changed by his or her uncanny experience.
Initially it’s a real disappointment - but thankfully, the crucial ambiguity remains. Johnny might have decided to bail on the story for good, cutting his losses and exiting stage-left with a nice new gal to pal around with, and Captain Sam might have delivered his stock confession to the fuzz and resigned himself to a life behind bars, but no moderately imaginative viewer is gonna take that shit at face value. Marjorie Cameron is still a no show – who WAS that strange woman, and what was the alien language we heard her speak in the opening sequence…? Mora herself may be conveniently ‘dead’, but the circumstances strike me as pretty vague. We are not privy to the results of the inquest, or to the details of her burial. Given her obvious love of the ocean, could she have been buried at sea, by any chance…? Harrington and his producers might have called time when things hit the last reel, but somewhere off screen, Mora’s tale continues.
Although it’s a solid movie in almost every respect, for me the fascination of ‘Night Tide’ stems from it’s role as a kind of prism, reflecting the psycho-cultural landscape of the L.A. beach towns, and foreshadowing the immense changes that were about to be wrought upon their hermetic cultural development in the following decade.
Somewhere just down the way, The Beach Boys were probably getting warmed up, and Sandra Dee was probably busy shooting ‘Gidget Goes Hawaiian’, without the faintest idea that she’d be reduced to orgasmic altar-writhing in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ before the decade was out. Bob Markley, future tragic avatar of ‘60s L.A. weird, was probably down there somewhere, hustling chicks and playing bongos on the beach in his faux-beatnik, pre-Law School get-up (and probably with markedly less success than the beach-bongo dudes who appear in another one of ‘Night Tide’s great moments of super/natural peril).
Dennis Hopper himself would of course go on to become emblematic of the shape of things to come, as the man on the scene when the ‘weird’ culture that seems so marginal, so exotic in the world of ‘Night Tide’ crashed headfirst into Hollywood and every other damn place, reaching it’s grizzly end a few short years later as the bloated carcass of what became ‘the counter-culture’ collapsed under combined weight of chemicals, ego and miscellaneous abuse. And if seeing Hopper here as a holy innocent is perhaps not entirely out of keeping with the quixotic travails that would take him on the strange path from ‘Easy Rider’ through ‘The Last Movie’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’, it nonetheless seems especially eerie to see him young, clean and sober, wetting his toes in the waters of the weird for the first time (or at least pretending to).
One thing’s for sure: it would have been a hell of a lot easier for a young goof like Hopper’s character to get mixed up with salty characters and mystical hoodoo in the Santa Monica of 1971. But it just wouldn’t have been half as much fun, would it? That wide-open feeling would have been long gone, the truly weird creatures having long ago returned to the shadows.
’Night Tide’ is public domain, and my screengrabs are taken from a surprisingly nice looking print you get find on archive.org. Frustratingly though, the audio track on this file doesn’t sync right, rendering it pretty useless. If you want to turn the sound down and just enjoy the visuals, I found that Grouper’s ‘AIA: Alien Observer’ album and side two of Miles Davis’s ‘E.S.P’ make for an excellent alternative soundtrack. If you’d prefer to actually hear the dialogue coming out of people’s mouths and follow the story though, you’ll have to resort to roughing it on Youtube I’m afraid. Or you could always be swish cat and find it on DVD I guess, but jeez, do I look like I’m madea money..?