Night Tide: Beatniks, Mermaids and LA Witches



Night Tide,
the 1961 cult classic,  always leaves me with that post-dream feeling of trying to pull all the threads together, even as I know that the task is impossible. Half beach-noir, half horror-fantasy, it was the first feature film for Curtis Harrington, who had been part the small but vital experimental film-making scene that developed in Los Angeles after the Second World War. Harrington was an only child, a library lingerer and an Edgar Allen Poe freak. He began making movies at fourteen, starting with a short film based on The Fall of the House of Usher.*  In the documentary House of Harrington he describes seeing a billboard for The Bride of Frankenstein and begging his parents to let him see it. He was five.
    "There are two words,” he explains, “esoteric and exoteric, exoteric is all on the surface, that's what you see. Esoteric is the hidden meaning, the hidden thing behind, and that's what I'm interested in.” 


On the surface Night Tide about a sailor who falls in love with a sideshow mermaid, but underneath it is about loneliness, vulnerability, and the dangers of mythology. It might be a metaphor for difficult love.  Dennis Hopper plays Johnny, the baby-faced, tight-bunned sailor on leave. Linda Lawson is Mora, the mysterious woman he falls for. They meet at a jazz/beat club where Johnny attempts a clumsy pick-up. Mora's initial hauteur crumbles pretty quickly and after a walk-and-talk they make a date for breakfast. Mora lives above a merry-go-round on Santa Monica pier. She tells Johnny she was born on a Greek island and found by Captain Sam Murdock (Gavin Muir), who brought her to America. Captain Murdock now works as the carnival barker luring the crowds to her mermaid act. He seems amiable, but is only a few drinks away from revealing his true bad self. 

He links Mora to the myth of the Sirens, claiming she will one day return to her sea people”. As Johnny meets the people in Mora’s periphery - carnival owner, his daughter Ellen (Luana Anders), and Chiromancer/Clairvoyant Madame Romanovitch (Marjorie Eastman) - Mora’s ‘legend’ grows. No one knows who she really is. The most that Johnny can get out of her is that she loves the sea. She loves it, but she’s scared of it too.
“I guess we’re all a little afraid of the things we love,” Johnny says. Later, over coffee with the merry-go-round crew he learns that Mora's last two boyfriends were found dead, washed up on the shore. 

Of note in the cast is another famous Marjorie - Marjorie Cameron, LA artist and witch, friend of Alastair Crowley, Thelema member, and widow of rocket scientist/satanist Jack Parsons. Cameron plays the Water Witch, whose presence always sends Mora into panic. She cuts a dramatic figure with her widow weeds and model cheekbones. In my favourite scene, Johnny tails the Water Witch through the ruined streets of Venice. He follows her over and under canal bridges and loses her at Captain Murdock’s house, a cabinet of curiositIes, random taxidermy, a soldier’s hand in a jar of formaldehyde ... 


Johnny takes up Madame Romanovitchs offer of a reading. She tells him that Mora is innocent but that she lives "in a vortex of evil.” It becomes clear that Mora is trapped in a narrative not of her making; she seems to face an unhappy choice: either become was she has been told she is or resist and go mad.
Night Tide waltzes around different genres, never quite settling. It is eerie here and camp there with the male gaze in full effect. The idea was not to alienate conventional film-goers, but Harrington couldn't help his influences creeping in. His friends and associates were misfitty, strange fish, queer-before-queer-was-acknowledged They shared a European outlook, and were dedicated to the avant-garde. He collaborated with film-makers Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger; hung out with aesthete and collector Samson de Brier and writer/fabulist Anais Nin. In Night Tide there are hints of the underground bobbing up, before New Hollywood arrived and put the counter culture front and centre. Of the cast only Dennis Hopper would go big breaking out with Easy Rider (1969). Linda Lawson worked mainly in television with a twenty year gap where she swapped acting for home duties. Marjorie Cameron stayed far out, making art in the margins, drifting, getting into domestic tangles with her ex, and magick rituals with Kenneth Anger, (according to Wormwood Star, Spencer Kansa’s 2014 biography of Cameron, one ritual involved the pair ingesting hormone tablets “in a hairbrained attempt to become each other. “ Although much of her art was lost or destroyed her work has gained new recognition in the last decade. 
In the 1970s Curtis Harrington carved out his own niche with psychological horror B-movies, titles like: What’s the Matter with Helen?, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? and How Awful about Allen, before a long successful TV career, directing shows like Dynasty and Charlie’s Angels. His later movies aren’t terrible, but they don’t match the strange poetry, doomed romance and esoteric quirk of Night Tide. Most of this of this can be attributed to Harringtons nous, and the culture of the “collective dream” of cinema, but there is also the contribution of a specific social/historical element, those Cosmic LA tentacles extending forward and back, re-describing the city as a magnet for kooks and quacks and freaks and drifters.
Curtis Harrington died in 2007 after complications from a stroke. His hard-to-get memoir Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood occasionally pops up on Ebay for a hefty price. If you find a copy let me know.
*Towards the end of his life he would return to the subject to remake it as an extended short, starring himself as Usher, his career coming full circle.

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