Friday, July 2, 2010

REVIEW: Night Tide

Night Tide
Director: Curtis Harrington
Year 1961

Night Tide is one of the most haunting tales I've ever seen, made all the more effective by the late Dennis Hopper's subdued performance as he unravels a mystery of immense proportions. Hopper plays the main  character Johnny Drake, a naval sailor who has just been granted shore leave in a misty and noir stylized sea port town that lies along the Californian coast. It is in this eerie coastal town, filled with carnival games and sideshow entertainers, that Johnny meets an intriguing girl by the name of Mora, played by the beautifully unsettling Linda Lawson. This simple meeting manifests a spooky tale filled with horror, love, and mysteries at every turn, all packed with enough atmosphere to rival other black and white masterpieces like the 1962 film Carnival of Souls and the 1960's gothic classic Black Sunday. This film stands proudly next to these great films of horror cinema.

Give the drummer some room Hopper. You're freaking him out.

The atmosphere in this film is just thick. It weighs heavy on the screen and you can feel it in every second of the films 84 minute running time. The expressive and beautifully lit black and white compositions are just a sight to behold and each location seems plucked from a dream. There is a strong French New Wave feel to this film, one that fits nicely within that genre's elite standings, right next to Last Year at Marienbad, Breathless, and Alphaville. Though not as crucial or masterfully done as those films, Night Tide does a tremendous job in making a breathtaking film with enough visual sense and extravagant compositions to relate a vague resemblance to those aforementioned films.

Dennis Hopper asks Mora if she's seen the rest of the Village People.

What helps the most in achieving this engaging level of atmosphere is the combination of both Dennis Hopper and Linda Lawson's characters and how they play off of each other. Their both intriguing subjects and ones that always have a cloud of mystery hanging over them. The filmmakers made a great choice in giving the audience only a slight view into their past lives. We are only privy to a few spare tidbits of knowledge of their former life and what they do for a living. Hopper's Johnny is a sailor on leave and Lawson's Mora is a sideshow attraction posing as a mermaid at the local carnival, but this is basically all the information that we're given. I for one love the mysterious nature of both characters and feel that it only helps to solidify the obscure tendencies and inherent complexities that this film seems to revel in. As the film unravels, we are given a little more back story on who they are and we begin to realize the true nature of this tale, but we are never truly sure where the story is exactly going to lead us.

Lets go see Mora the Mermaid and her side boobs. Hooray!

The great mystery that is presented to us in this film is one that works so well and is so hypnotic in its delivery, that it really helps to propel this film into a domain of its own. With the help of great filmmaking, we are given a far fetched story that goes beyond the realm of belief, yet is presented so expertly that we believe it all and get sucked up in its fascinating tale of a woman without a past. It's the effective way that the director reveals these revelations and the delicate and respective way that he approaches the subject material, that make it so worthwhile and intrinsic to the overall story arch, making us believe in the unbelievable and suspend our confines of the here and now.

Dennis Hopper takes a moment to pledge to the flag. What a patriot.

It's in this belief that Hopper's Johnny begins to suspect that there is something strange about Mora. Something that is more then meets the eye. He has a suspicion that the sideshow that she is working at could be much more then just a silly attraction, but in fact provide a revealing look into her mysterious origins and hidden past. The answers lie just beneath the surface, but we are never fully given all the elements to have a solid case in the matter. All the viewer has to go on is the unnatural nature of Mora's interactions with Johnny and the off kilter moments in which we ask ourselves the validity of Mora's existence and the mental capacity of Johnny's perception of the world. It's a great balance that the audience is witness too and one that works so well in making us decipher on our own, the true nature of both characters. Is Mora in fact a mermaid or is Johnny lost in a dream, destined to be eclipsed by this waking nightmare that taunts him?

Why your skin is as soft as a baby's butt.

In his quest to discover the truth, Johnny traverses a great many locations throughout the coastal dreamlike town, meeting many diverse people that only help to maintain that feeling of being lost in a dream. There are so many striking moments in this film. Ones that spark that curious segment of the brain while at the same time progressing the story along at a steady pace. We are given elements that propel the narrative onward in the most gentle of circumstances, letting us be swept up in what is going on upon the screen and naturally following in Johnny's determined footsteps as he bridges the gap towards the startling truth.

It's the Seinfeld thinking moment.
Should he stay with the mermaid or break it off and gain hand?

There's a beautiful sequence in which Johnny follows a strange woman throughout town as she suspiciously weaves her way across bridges and down alleyways. The woman has been appearing at various times in the film and each instance in which she appears, she sends Mora into an uncontrollable state of shock inducing her to faint on the spot. Johnny's journey across town leads him to a dilapidated house that happens to belong to Mora's employer, Captain Samuel Murdock, the man that runs the mermaid attraction at the boardwalk.

At this point we are presented with an intriguing conspiracy that begs the question, is this woman linked to Mora's employer and does she have sinister intentions in mind? The way these mysteries are laid out in front of us are so vague in their true nature and so ambiguous in their intent, that it is almost impossible to not want to press on and obtain the answers. This convention that the filmmakers have applied to the story, helps us relate to the plight that Johnny's character is going through and sympathize with the hypnotic wonder of wanting to discover the truth.

Well hello there. Mora the mermaid gives one of her private shows.

Both Hopper and Lawson do a tremendous job in making us care for their respective characters. Lawson's portrayal of the tormented Mora is spellbinding as she struggles to come to terms with who she is and accept her enigmatic fate. Lawson's acting is so convincing, that we understand perfectly why Johnny can't help but do all he can to assist her in finding herself. He's a man that doesn't necessarily believe in the ideas that are being thrown at him, but his unfaltering devotion to Mora gives him that push that is needed for him to do anything in his power to help her, no matter how otherworldly or fantastic the end result seems.

Hopper and Lawson play off each other with great effect and you can see their tremendous chemistry whenever they are on screen together. They bring that essential element that makes this whole film that much more believable. Without them, I don't think this outlandish tale could be told, at least on the level that is presented in this film because of their stupendous efforts.

It's a madhouse! A madhouse!

Frankly, the efforts of the key actors are not the only elements in this film that hit the mark. The locations of this splendid movie ooze with the realization of a dreamlike world. The pier and boardwalk, along with the hazy atmosphere of the lifeless seaport town, provide a unique playground for this eerie narrative to be told. Venice Beach and the Santa Monica Pier, provide the perfect backdrop that inspires an abundantly vivid feeling of mournful solitude, intrepid loneliness, and a haunting sense of dread. There is a certain timelessness to these locales, like being lost in a dream, yet they are so locked within the time period of that era that it provides for some interesting and awe inspiring viewing. It makes me really wish that I could have visited these places during the filming of this movie. You just don't see places like this anymore, which is a great shame.

A foggy morning in mermaidville.

Aside from the overbearing dread that the locales provide in this film, we also are given some traditional horror elements and scenarios that rely on the macabre visual sense that runs so abundant in most horror films. These elements are provided within the context of Johnny's frequent and prevalent nightmares, where he is fighting off a giant octopus or coming face to face with the horrible realization that Mora is indeed a mermaid and is being swept off to sea. These nightmares reflect the apprehension and fear that Johnny is going through, worrying that Mora truly is a mermaid and that their love is something that can never be.

These striking visuals convey that fear in a stark conceptualization that really gets to the heart of the matter. You feel the tension between Johnny and his ever approaching discovery that his love is coming to a rapid conclusion. He's scared to death that his visions are a precursor to the truth and he's fighting tooth and nail against that impending fact.

Dennis Hopper doing his part in helping out a beached mermaid.

Director Curtis Harrington's vision for Night Tide is just impeccable and moves at a steady and welcomed pace. He provides much flare with his direction and use of compositions, but doesn't knock you over the head with his ideas. The visuals are complex, but they fit within the context of the scene, allowing us to better digest the striking visuals that are laid out before us. I haven't had the pleasure of viewing his other work, but for what he has accomplished in this film, he already has my undivided attention.

Harrington provides the structure that allows this film to thrive and presents the firm base that provides a perfect setting for both Hopper and Lawson to play their part with great zeal and tremendous effort. The film in itself feels complete and lived in. There's a rhyme and reason for everything that is on screen and the narrative never wavers or falters under the tremendous pressure that resides within this atmospheric and deep story. Both the film and director Curtis Harrington, deserve a high status and a round of applause for the caliber of work that is on display here.

Cheer up Hopper. You'll be tall enough for that ride someday.

All the twists and turns and mystery and intrigue lead us to the dramatic conclusion, where all the answers are given and our main characters come to the life changing realization that their lives will never be the same. It's a satisfying conclusion to a film that truly comes through in every aspect of its production. After viewing this movie, you feel as if you've been through this long ordeal yourself and you have a great admiration for Johnny's character and all that he has encumbered. For a film in general, that's saying a lot, but for an eccentric and obscure title such as this, that says a world on how truly amazing this movie actually is.

There's a depth here that not many films ever even get close to yet state that they have it in abundance. What you get in Night Tide, is the complete package giving a tremendous stake in providing an atmosphere, rivaled by few, while centering the story on a well thought out and intricate plot. It's a testament to the directors abilities and to the entire crew involved in this shoot.

Hopper took some time to draw some Jesus fish.
You graffiti drawing bastard!

Night Tide is a film that brings you into its world and never lets go for a second. You're overtaken by all that it has to offer and you're transported along with the characters as they're forced to come to terms with the unexplainable and unbelievable. These mystifying elements are taken so seriously and treated with such care, that we are compelled to be swept up in the madness of it all and latch on to the believable performances of both Dennis Hopper and Linda Lawson. The combination of the actors efforts and the filmmakers persistent drive in crafting a narrative that transforms a fantasy into a reality, pays off in full in creating a film that makes you believe in the power of cinema.

This film really sticks with you and for me that is what a good movie should do. Especially a film that is this enjoyable to watch unfold. I highly recommend this film to anyone that loves horror and the amazing worlds that they can transport us too. This is captivating and atmospheric filmmaking at its best.

4 out of 5 stars                 A Haunting Horror Classic!

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful review you wrote on this film. I love the film, had it taped for me off TMC and have watched it numerous times since. Typically I do not like horror films, but this one was so innocent at the beginning, it drew me in immediately. I have some questions of my own - please answer if you can: who called Johnny at the merry-go-round right before he saw the Mystery Woman in Black? Do you think she was Mrs. Murdock? What language did she speak in when she spoke to Mora at the Blue Grotto? Do you think Johnny and Ellen were going to get together after Mora's death? Was not Dennis Hopper's hair a darker color at the end of the movie (started out as blonde)? Also to be recognized was the music chosen for the movie, it was kinda of haunting and was a good companion to the acting. I've read on other posts, if you want to see Dennis Hopper in a movie where he is not playing a bad guy (besides Hoosiers), see this one. Oh yeah - rest in peace, Dennis!