Monday, May 19, 2014

The mermaid of Venice (Beach)

We see lonesome seaman Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper) on shore leave, in dress whites, smoking on a Venice Beach footbridge, wondering where to go. He loiters in a drug store, checks his weight for something to do, smiles for the photo booth, a handsome young orphan who’s done little, been almost nowhere, and wants to know who he is, or is going to be. Later in the bar a jazz band is playing. Johnny doesn’t know whether to drink from the bottle or the glass. He sits beside the drummer and from that vantage point sees a woman all alone. Her name is Mora and she’s the mermaid in a sideshow. He wants to talk to her but she wants to hear the music. He manages to walk her to her little apartment over the merry-go-round. She won’t invite him up but they make a breakfast date. A peculiar romance has begun and everything feels captivatingly eerie. Mora seems nearly angelic but people warn Johnny off her—her last two boyfriends vanished and turned up dead. Doesn’t Johnny know that sirens lure sailors to their doom? Mora confesses she believes herself the descendant of sirens. And by about now it becomes clear that Night Tide (1961) is a descendent of Cat People (1942), the first of many atmospheric horror films Val Lewton made for RKO, and a most welcome variation on a rich and wondrous theme.

I first saw Night Tide on a dying VHS tape as a Hopper-obsessed teenager. Its recent restoration has been followed up with a DVD/BD release from Kino, and the film is actually stronger than I remembered. Hopper’s excellent, very early in his career yet already he’s got that strange alertness to the alien in ordinary things. He chews gum like it’s a secret project. His Johnny is both credulous and suspicious of everything—except those things he should genuinely fear. “Guess we’re all a little afraid of what we love,” he says at one point, but the appeal of Johnny is that he doesn’t yet know what to love or fear.

Night Tide was the debut feature of Curtis Harrington, a fascinating figure. By this point he’d already written a book on Josef von Sternberg, been mentored by Maya Deren, collaborated with James Whale and Kenneth Anger, and made numerous experimental shorts and a documentary about the work of artist Marjorie Cameron, who was also an occultist and the wife of Jack Parsons, the rocket engineer and cohort of Aleister Crowley. Cameron inhabits Night Tide’s most enigmatic role, one of its most overt call-backs to Cat People, an older spectral woman who appears to Mora, most memorably during a moonlight beach dance, and speaks to her in some language only Mora understands. Even after the film’s resolution, Cameron’s character remains a mystery, and the scenes in which she features are weird, sexy, and beautifully photographed, like so much of this film, a gem of early ’60s low-budget spookiness nearly on par with Carnival of Souls (1962).

Filmmaker Curtis Harrington

Kino’s disc has a relaxed but hugely informative audio commentary from Harrington and Hopper, both now deceased, and some terrific interviews with Harrington, including one from some appealingly oddball old cable show. Those compelled to look deeper into Harrington’s life and work can check out the book Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood and a DVD/BD entitled The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection, both of which were published last year by the mighty Chicago record label Drag City. 

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