Monday, September 20, 2010

Night Tide (1961)

Dennis Hopper was sort of the Crispin Glover of his generation, wasn't he? I never realized it because he was already a respected, tenured actor by the time I showed up. I just figured that he happened to get (or at worst, like) weird parts. I never figured it was actually him making them weird. But he was only 25 when Night Tide came out and his role is a nice, young sailor. A normal guy who unfortunately falls for the wrong girl. At least, he looks normal on paper.

Actually, there's a little creepiness in the script. Johnny Drake's on shore leave in a little town on the coast of California when he meets Mora (Linda Lawson) in a beatnik coffee house. By "meets" I mean he sees her across the room, sits down uninvited at her table, bothers her by talking over the band she's clearly trying to enjoy, then follows her out the door and won't go home until she tells him where she lives and agrees to see him again. About the only point to his credit is that she doesn't leave because of him. She's spooked by a woman who enters the bar, gives Mora a threatening look, and then takes off again. But still, Drake's game needs a lot of work.

Once Mora decides he's okay though, he becomes a pretty decent guy. And if Hopper had played it a bit differently, he wouldn't have come across as desperately lonely and intense as he does. That performance lasts the entire movie too, so that Drake always seems a bit unhinged. His decency comes from the script's not allowing him to kill anyone.

It's not so kind to other characters though because this is a horror movie. Mora works as a sideshow mermaid on the boardwalk, but there's some question about whether or not that's just an act. As some of the locals tell Drake, Mora's last two boyfriends ended up drowned under mysterious circumstances. Some think that Mora believes she really is a mermaid - the siren variety who lures men to their watery doom. And the woman from the coffee shop may just be another siren, here to bring Mora back home to the island from which she was rescued as a girl.

I've fallen in love with low-budget, black-and-white horror movies from the '60s. Though Night Tide was written and directed by Curtis Harrington (adapted from his own short story, "The Call of the Sea"), there's a Roger Corman quality about it. The horror is mostly psychological with few special effects. And what effects it has are charmingly cheesy. It's a weird, pleasantly unsettling film with an interesting mystery and a strange, but likable main character to unravel it.

Three out of five mermaids.

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