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Night Tide

     "Mora, ladies and gentlemen ... Mora the mermaid: the strangest creature in captivity ... See her alive ... See her living underwater ... Half-human. Half-Fish. The strangest creature in captivity ... Only 25-cents."

-- Captain Murdoch, mermaid barker     




Gonzoid Cinema




"Excuse me, man. Is this, like, the way to the 'Gilligan's Island' auditions? Far out."


Watch it!



Sights &
 Virgo Productions Inc. /
 Phoenix Productions /
 The Film Group /
 American International

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Career Killers?

Dennis Hopper

Heavens no. Actually, the film is pretty darn good.

The Films of
Curtis Harrington.

Night Tide

Queen of Blood

How Awful About Allan

Whoever Slew Auntie Roo

What's the Matter with Helen

The Killing Kind

Killer Bees


Our feature today is an atmospheric and moody little pot-boiler from our old friends at American International Pictures that's based on -- what else? -- a poem by Edgar Allan Poe. It's the story of a young sailor who is either falling in love with- or falling under the spell of a displaced mermaid -- well, maybe she is, maybe she isn't -- who, while under the influence of the moon tides, must fight off her bloodlust against the ones she loves. Will true love win out? Will she return to the sea? Or will she feast? Two men have already died trying to find out. Will there soon be a third? (...This one's for you, Cliffie!)

While out on his first weekend liberty, young sailor Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper) explores the sights and attractions of the local Amusement Pier. Following his nose into a bar, where a jazz combo is cutting a mean groove (-- and as a litmus test of the film's quality, the music in here is actually pretty good), Johnny gets a beer, and while taking in the bar patrons, perhaps looking for another lonely soul to spend the evening with, he spots a pretty raven-haired girl, bobbing to the music, and takes a chance. Using the awkward approach, that proves to be genuine (-- not a come on), Johnny takes a seat at her table and tries to make small talk. But the girl is more interested in the music -- until she spots an older woman, dressed in black, spying on them. The old bird then approaches, says something in a foreign tongue that only the girl understands, and this encounter spooks her so much that she abruptly departs, leaving the bewildered Johnny behind. But he quickly goes after her, under the hateful gaze of the old witch, and when he catches up to the girl, swearing he only wants to walk her home, it being so late at night and all, she agrees to the escort. Upon reaching her apartment, that's located above the pier's giant Carousel, Johnny thinks it's an odd place to live, but the girl claims to find the attraction's music soothing. (Frankly, that calliope music would make me stark raving bonkers.) Totally smitten, pathologically shy Johnny musters enough bravery to get the girl's name, Mora (Linda Lawson), and with that revelation, he steals a kiss. At first, Mora is taken aback by this move, but after a quick apology, does agree to see him again for a late breakfast, tomorrow, and finally manages a smile before Johnny returns to his ship.

Our eager boy arrives early the next morning, just as the merry-go-round opens up for the day. He meets the owner, Walter Sands (Tom Dillon), and his plucky granddaughter, Ellen (Luana Anders), and when Johnny mentions his impending date with Mora, the gregarious proprietors quickly turn suspicious at the mere mention of her name. Weirded out by this reaction, and with no real explanation for it, Johnny moves on to Mora's apartment -- that's definitely got an under-the-sea motif going, judging by all the crap she's got tacked up on the wall. Her breakfast of fresh mackerel(?) is ready, and they eat it out on the balcony, where Mora goes on and on about the delicacies of the sea -- something a Colorado boy like Johnny knows little about but would love to learn. As they eat, the couple exchange life stories: Johnny is an orphan, who joined the Navy to see the world; Mora, meanwhile, is a little more cryptic about her past, but presently, she is a mermaid by trade in one of the sideshows at the Amusement Pier. In fact, she has to go to work soon and explains to Johnny how it works, through trickery, with a fake tank (-- and there's another illusion shattered. First wrestling, and now this.) While Johnny is anxious to finish up and see her in her costume, their breakfast is suddenly interrupted by several low altitude seagulls; one of which lands in front of Nora, who cradles the wild sea bird to her breast.

After breakfast, the curious couple heads over to the pier and the "Mora the Mermaid" rostrum, where they find the proprietor, Captain Sam Murdoch (Gavin Muir) -- an old salt who puts the yo-ho-ho in the bottle of rum, if you know what I mean -- asleep behind the barker's stand. Once they wake him up, Mora goes to get ready, leaving Murdoch, a retired Royal Navy man, to swap sea stories with Johnny. But the older man is disappointed when Johnny doesn't have any, and when the young sailor asks about Mora, Murdoch suddenly gets a bad case of mumble-mouth after revealing he found the girl on a remote island during his travels. Before he can say more, Mora calls from the inside that she's ready. (That was quick. Too quick?) Murdoch is then bitten by the cryptic bug, but invites Johnny to his house later, promising to finish up- and explain the "unusual" story of Mora's origin then. With that, Johnny heads into a small, darkened chamber that is empty except for a large tank in the center, with the only light source coming from the illuminated aquarium. When Johnny approached and peers inside, through the water, he can see Mora lounging on the aquarium floor, casually stroking her hair as it drifts around in the water -- which, come to think of it, kinda contradicts her explanation on how the mermaid hoax works...

Producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tournuer started a whole new horror sub-genre in the 1940's for RKO Pictures, with a string of movies that were long on mood and atmosphere that relied more on suggestion than actual spooks. They were kind of a Nuevo Gothic, bringing old fashioned monster movie trappings, mixed with a little noir flare, but set them in modern times. 

I find it amazing that all these new horror conventions that Lewton and Tournuer are credited for were, for the most part, the result of budgetary restraints -- also the reason they seldom had a monster.

Many tried to copy the success of that formula; most ultimately failed. Allied Artist made the most failed attempts: see Bert I. Gordon's Tormented as the wonkiest example. And by the time the late '50s and '60s rolled around, all that was left of the genre was whatever gimmick picture William Castle was turning out at the time. Once in a while, though, there'd come along a no-budget thriller that milked those new conventions for all they were worth. Shot on actual locations, a kind of commando filmmaking, that only added to the mounting surrealism, these films just got under your skin and spooked you, spooked you good, and left you grasping for the exact reasons why.

Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, I think, is the best example of this. That movie is a delirium to me; a fever dream, and as you watch it, especially the first time through, something just isn't quite right about it and you can't lock the movie down. Strange visuals, weird angles, the illogic logic, and just the general starkness of the whole thing is unnerving. Is what you're seeing real? When does the dream end? Hell, When did it start? What? Then, when the ending provides all the answers to those doubts and questions, you just have to tip your hat to the production for being able to tweak you that effectively. I think it's a fantastic film, but that movie has no business being as good as it is.

Meanwhile, over at American International Pictures, Roger Corman had found another diamond in the rough for Nicholson and Arkoff in writer/director Curtis Harrington, who, after making a couple of short experimental films, made his feature film debut with Night Tide. And to be honest, it's a pretty impressive, no-budget psychodrama whose creepy, eerie, earnest and sincere elements strikes a strange alchemy that once again is hard to comprehend, let alone explain. Of course, that doesn't mean I won't try as we pick things back up when Johnny's next weekend pass rolls around. And after he and Mora head to the beach, where they have a picnic, Mora wants to go swimming. When Johnny says they have to wait at least a half-hour for their food to digest, a confused Mora's never heard that tip before; seems she's never had any trouble in the water. (Cue ominous sting!) While they wait, the subject switches to Captain Murdoch as Johnny wants to know what their relationship is. Mora claims he's just an old friend -- her only friend. When Johnny asks What about him?, Mora grows afraid, not wanting to admit they're growing close, for some reason, and asks if Murdoch said anything strange about her. After Johnny assures her he didn't, Mora regroups and says Murdoch found her, orphaned, on the Greek Isle of Mikolos. He later adopted her and she joined him in his world travels until they eventually settled here. Then Mora gets even more enigmatic when she talks about her longing for the sea, claiming to be drawn to it and yet terrified of it at the same time. Johnny admits "We're all afraid of what we love", and with that statement, the two embrace and go for a roll in the sand ... Later, the two are drawn to a raucous beach party. When the bongo player asks Mora to dance for them, she appears to be possessed by the beat -- but her frenzied act ends when she spots the old woman in black again, which immediately causes Mora to collapse. Quickly, Johnny moves to help her. He saw the old woman, too, but she's mysteriously disappeared before he can get any answers.

The next morning, Johnny goes to visit Mora but is intercepted by the Merry-Go-Rounders, who invite him in for some coffee. They have another guest, Madame Monosomethingorother (Marjorie Eaton), a fortune teller from up the pier, who invites Johnny to come for a free reading. Then another guest joins them, a police detective, and our story gets even murkier and murkier when the others praise the officer for not giving up, and after asking if any new clues have surfaced, they finally clue Johnny [and us] in that Mora's last two boyfriends died under mysterious circumstances: both disappeared, and then eventually washed up on shore. Finally realizing why everyone was acting so suspicious, Johnny can't believe that Mora would have anything to do with it. Suddenly, the phone rings. It's for Johnny, which is odd because no one knows he's there. (Damn telemarketers.) But when he takes the receiver, no one is there. He spies the old woman lurking nearby and gives chase; but every time Johnny almost catches up to her, the old bird magically winds up about twenty yards ahead of him again. Once more he catches up, rounds a corner, but the woman has disappeared again. However, by coincidence, by machination, or just plain dumb luck, Johnny's chase lands him at the door of Captain Murdoch's home. When Murdoch invites him in, Johnny marvels at all the treasures and oddities he picked up during his travels, including the severed hand of an Arab thief. Cool knick-knacks aside, Johnny really wants that promised story about Mora. To which Murdoch is very blunt, and warns Johnny that he is in grave danger and must break off the relationship as soon as possible. When Johnny gets defensive, Murdoch says the danger's not from him -- but from Mora! Who will eventually be overcome with a compulsion to kill the one she loves. Thinking Murdoch is drunk and overprotective of his daughter, Johnny still listens as the old salt continues, talking about the myth of the Sirens, who lured sailors to their doom with their beauty and voice. Murdoch then spews ironically that his sideshow is the perfect place to hide Mora; in plain sight. He rants on, claiming he didn't know what she was, or was to become, when he found her; a monster. Then, Murdoch babbles about an ancient race from the sea who are after her, wanting to bring Mora home. As the quarter drops, Johnny asks Murdoch about the mystery woman in black. Denying knowing any such woman, all the booze finally catches up and the old man passes out.

Confronting Mora with all he's heard that day, to his surprise, the girl doesn't deny any of it and claims she didn't tell him in fear that he would leave her. When Johnny assures her that he believes none of it and will stick by her, Mora is envious of Johnny's wide-eyed naiveté; but she's convinced the old woman is one of the sea people, sent to bring her back. On this point, Mora is torn. She feels the seawater in her veins, and the changing tides pull at her -- especially on the nights of the full moon. Believing the sea calls to her, Mora fights this longing because she doesn't want to leave Johnny. Holding her tight, he promises that, together, they can beat this malediction and things will work out.

After Mora goes to work, Johnny visits Madame Monowhatshername and the clairvoyant makes things even more complicated when she breaks out the Tarot cards ... She emphasizes the moon card, with the crab that tries to crawl out of the water only to fail. When he asks about Mora, Madame Morowhattheheckareyoutalkingabout says she is caught up in a "vortex of evil" but warns Johnny that he's the one in real danger. Unsure of what to do, the fortune teller tells Johnny the answer lies in your heart (-- and that'll be two dollars.) Later, when Johnny returns to Mora's apartment, she's just gotten in the tub so he stretches out on the couch for a quick nap. But just as he closes his eyes, he hears Mora approaching, soaking wet, wrapped in a soggy bathrobe. They embrace. They kiss. But then Johnny notices Mora has a tail! And her hands have suddenly turned into tentacles! Then Johnny screams as the sea monster envelopes and strangles him...

...But it was all a dream, and when Johnny wakes up, Mora is gone. Following her wet footprints outside to the beach, he calls to her. She answers from underneath the pier, where the tide is rapidly coming in. Johnny spies her by the pylons, and with the surf crashing dangerously around her, the boy rescues her and takes her back inside, where she sobs that the siren call of the sea is getting stronger and she won't be able to resist it for much longer.

Wanting to help her fight this thing that compels her, Johnny goes AWOL to stay and protect her. His trepidation has her worried, so she sends him to a local masseuse to ease up. And while Johnny gets a rubdown, Murdoch winds up on the next table, from which he asks if Mora has been acting more odd lately. He also warns the boy to be extra careful because there's a full moon tonight, and reiterates that Johnny should never see her again ... Upon his return to the apartment, Johnny finds Mora in good spirits. Convinced that she was just sleepwalking the night before, she now firmly believes that he's been right all along and all that sea people nonsense is just that -- nonsense. To celebrate, the girl wants to take Johnny on a dive to her favorite spot, and then ominously states that conditions are perfect -- the full moon tide is just right. Recalling Murdoch's warning, a waffling Johnny makes up all kinds of excuses. (Is he starting to believe?) But he finally agrees to do it when Mora says it's very important to her. (The big dope.)

While taking a boat to Mora's spot, Johnny's starts to get a little paranoid, but Mora puts him at ease as they don their gear. But before they go over the side, Mora warns Johnny to stay very close to her. Now, I'm honestly not sure what happens next; the print of the film I have is pretty dark and the underwater scenes are almost unwatchable. So, I think Mora takes a knife and slices Johnny's air hose, and as he frantically kicks for the surface and pulls himself into the boat, Mora watches from below and then swims away, toward deeper water and the open ocean. Above, Johnny waits for Mora to surface. And waits. And waits...

Long after her air would have run out, Johnny finally heads back in and holes up in a hotel to hide from the Shore Patrol. Plagued by more bad dreams, including a vision of Mora the mermaid slipping back into the sea, like the crab on the Tarot card, when he wakes up, with Madame Monowhatsowhosits voice still ringing in his ears, Johnny sees an article in the morning's paper about the Amusement Pier celebrating its 20th Anniversary; including a paragraph highlighting the sideshows. 

Mora the Mermaid is still open for business.

Wanting answers, Johnny sneaks by Murdoch -- whose call to come and see Mora seems different ... like it was missing something. (He typed ominously...) Entering the darkened room, our boy waits until a few kids clear out then approaches the illuminated tank. And when he peers inside, he quickly recoils: Mora is floating on the surface of the tank, unmoving, and obviously quite dead. And that's the part Murdoch was leaving out -- he was no longer calling Mora a "living mermaid." Speaking of Murdoch, gun in hand, he orders Johnny to move away from the tank and accuses him of murder. Johnny swears he didn't do this. He loved her. But Murdoch isn't listening and takes several shots at Johnny, who tips the tank over, spilling it's morbid contents onto Murdoch and they all land in a twisted heap.

Which leads us to the dénouement. 

The attempted shooting alerted two passing patrolmen, who then haul both suspects to jail. As the detective escorts Johnny into the interrogation room, Murdoch stops him ... Wanting to make a full confession, but only if Johnny is present, the old man admits that he was the one who killed Mora's other two boyfriends. He also swears that everything he did was out of love of Mora. He always saw her as the little orphan girl who was solely dependent on him, and to keep it that way, he convinced Mora that she really was a Siren to prevent her from loving anyone else. It worked, for a while, but as Mora grew up and wanted her independence, to keep her in line, he killed the others and convinced the impressionable girl that she did it without even realizing it.

But his plan worked too well. Seems Mora was going to kill Johnny during their diving excursion, but in the end, she couldn't do it. To save him, Mora cut his air hose, so he couldn't stop her when she tried to return to her "people." And I'm gonna assume she drowned and Murdoch found her, washed ashore, and tried to make things the way they were by putting her back on display -- since the movie kind of left that part up to us to interpret. But Johnny doesn't think Murdoch is telling the whole truth, and believes the old man had an accomplice -- namely, the old woman in black. When Murdoch still denies knowing anything about her, the detective figures he's just trying to protect her. (The film is real ambiguous here, too. Who was this lady? Who knows for sure.) With that, Murdoch is hauled off to a cell and the SP's show up to haul Johnny back to base.

The End

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulcher
In this kingdom by the sea.
The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes! - that was the reason
(as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.
For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
in the sepulcher there by the sea,
 In her tomb by the sounding sea.


-- Edgar Allan Poe      

Wow, that's a real bummer, dude. Seriously.

Whoa ... Whoa ... Slow down ... Come back. Sit down. Sit. Now Stay. No, I haven't turned this website into a poetry appreciation society, I just wanted to post the poem, Annabel Lee, to show how much of a rarity the movie Night Tide really is. You see, when it comes to American International's adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells and other well known authors, "based on" basically meant, for the most part, that they shared the same title -- and that was about it. But Night Tide actually shows some strong inklings toward its source material and it's amazing how the haunting refrain of love found, love lost, and then the sometimes fatal consequences of finding it again -- especially when your girlfriend might be an octopus monster, comes through in the film.

Harrington's screenplay, here, was inspired by Poe's poem (-- and at this point in time I think it was a prerequisite for all of AIP's pictures), then mixed it with a little Greek Mythology and a dash of ancient Lovecraftian genetic hiccups-n-family tree issues to spice things up. Sounds convoluted, right? Right. But the resulting film is actually a taught, no-nonsense mind-bender as everything supernaturally suggested is also given a perfectly rational explanation -- but ... But. But. But. Maybe Mora really was a mermaid who must kill her lover during the full moon. And who was that mystery woman in black? Who knows, as Night Tide is just ambiguous enough that anything remains a possibility until the very end when the truth is revealed. And yes, that pat ending kinda let me down, too. And I suppose, technically, Night Tide is another one of those monster-less monster movies. Sure there was the octopus scene, that comes off rather silly and clumsy, but the scene was absolutely necessary for the narrative to work. It just falls a little short of expectations due to budget restraints, though I'm sure audiences back in 1961 were more than a little hacked by their misleading expectations, thanks to lurid and misleading advertising campaign. (Yet another tried and true AIP trick.)

One thing that really helps the film is the solid efforts of the cast. Star Dennis Hopper had plenty of experience as a bit player before Night Tide, but this was his first time as the headliner. Those of you used to his manic performances will probably be amazed by his subdued performance as the lovelorn Johnny. He just brings such a naturalness to Johnny that helps ground the film -- and his normalcy also helps to make all the weird stuff around him all the more creepy. Linda Lawson also shines as the earnest but ultimately doomed Mora, who would never find the feature success of her co-star but would have a solid career on tube.

As for Harrington? Well, he was one of those genre directors who probably should be more well known than he is, I think. He's one of those gray area guys whose work was neither good enough nor bad enough to leave a true (skid)mark, and as a result, kinda gets lost in the shuffle. When Night Tide was first released, TIME magazine tagged it as one of thee films to see for 1961. Unfortunately, despite this endorsement, no one saw it. Seems the film's budget couldn't afford union wages, and without the proper certification, the film was unofficially blackballed and quickly faded from circulation. After Night Tide, Corman set Harrington to work writing scripts that could be wrapped around the F/X from several imported Soviet science-fiction films, including Planeta Bur, Nebo zovyot and Mechta Navstrecha. Harrington went on to direct inserts for Voyage to a Prehistoric Planet, and teamed up with Hopper again for Queen of Blood -- both films mostly consisting of that footage pilfered from the Bolsheviks. After that was a couple of mild, modern-day gothic thrillers starring Shelley Winters, What's the Matter With Helen and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo, and one outstanding -- albeit very disturbing, character piece on what makes a serial killer a serial killer with The Killing Kind. When none of these films caught fire at the box-office, Harrington was soon relegated to Movies of the Week for the boob-tube, like The Killer Bees and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell, along with a lot of conventional episodic TV on several varied programs. The last feature film he worked on was another Grande-Damme feature, Ruby, a blatant Exorcist knock-off, where Harrington butted heads with his meddling producer so much that he eventually had his name stripped from the credits.

But with the possible exception of The Killing Kind, none of his later films managed to match his eerie first effort; though he seemed to be trying really hard to do just that in a lot of them. Perhaps too hard, in some cases. And if Night Tide has one fault it's that Harrington seemed to be so concerned with creating and maintaining the film's moody mood, the film almost chokes on it. Couple that with an ending that just sputters out, it keeps Night Tide from being considered a Cult Classic in the same breath as Carnival of Souls. It's real close. But still not quite.

Night Tide (1961) Virgo Productions Inc. :: Phoenix Films :: The Filmgroup :: American International Pictures / EP: Jules Schwartz / P: Aram Katarian / AP: H. Duane Weaver / D: Curtis Harrington / W: Curtis Harrington / C: Vilis Lapenieks, Floyd Crosby / E: Jodie Copelan / M: David Raksin / S: Dennis Hopper, Linda Lawson, Gavin Muir, Luana Anders, Marjorie Eaton, Marjorie Cameron

Originally Posted: 04/16/04 :: Rehashed 11/15/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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