Director: Curtis Harrington
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Linda Lawson
Watch Night Tide online in the UK: byNWR
It’s that age old story. Boy meets girl. Boy falls for girl. Boy discovers that girl may or may not be a sea monster with lethal intentions. The fact that you can even describe the plot of Night Tide with a straight face is testament to just how unassumingly effective it is.
Curtis Harrington’s 1960 horror is the latest in a string of titles restored and re-released digitally by Nicolas Winding Refn’s new streaming initiative, byNWR. The platform has so far focused on controversial pulp from the 1950s and 1960s, films that border on exploitative, outdated and trashy – in other words, precisely the kind of thing that you’d expect the Drive director to enjoy watching back on his old VHS collection.
While Night Tide seems to fit the bill, with its 35mm negative badly shrunk and rendered unprintable, what’s surprising is that it’s a lot more understated than its steamy, watery premise might suggest. The film is more romance than horror, more naive than naughty, and more innocent than erotic. That’s largely thanks to Dennis Hopper, who takes on his first starring role in the part of Johnny Drake, a sailor who is on shore leave in California. He spends his time hanging around the pier and the attached funfair, where he encounters Mora (Linda Lawson) in a jazz club. She’s mysterious and withdrawn – and, if that wasn’t intriguing enough, she dresses up as a mermaid for a local sideshow to draw in curious tourists.
The twist comes when we meet Captain Samuel Murdock, the man who runs the sideshow and has appointed himself as a kind of father figure to Mora – and his backstory, recounted one night after a strange journey across town, begins to raise questions about Mora’s identity and motivations. Is she an eccentric recluse with a day job pretending to be Ariel’s cousin? Or is she actually a mermaid with a siren-like call that beckons unsuspecting men to their deaths?
The result is a drama that sits somewhere between The Shape of Water and indie horror flick Spring, but Harrington finds his own tone to explore the genre, relying less on spooky effects and more on a noir-tinged atmosphere built up by the stark black-and-white visuals. There’s seediness in the air, right down to the choice of the carnival location, and it’s reinforced by David Raksin’s moody score, which overlaps with the background sounds of the sea.
But the thing that stops it all descending into laughable cheese is the quality of the performances. Lawson brings an endearing innocence to her role, refusing to make her a sultry femme fatale, and Hopper is simply magnetic to watch. With his baby-faced features recalling James or Dave Franco, he’s immediately charismatic and believably entranced; this is story of loss and infatuation, of obsession and secrets, one that’s given just enough eeriness by its lead couple that you can’t help but question their reliability as protagonists, let alone lenses through which to view the world.
Night Tide is weighed down by the cheesy, old-fashioned dialogue and often clunky exposition, but it’s buoyed by an unexpected amount of earnestness that keeps the whole thing afloat. As a pulpy hidden gem dredged up from the depths of cinema history, this is a welcome change of pace from byNWR’s usual fare. As a rare chance to see Dennis Hopper shine against type, it’s highly recommended.
Night Tide is available exclusively for free on byNWR from September 2018. For more on byNWR, click here.