There's no better way to start the new year than with a love story. At least, that's what I might say if I was the sentimental sort. Nah, the best way to start the new year in The Mike's world would primarily involve good football and good nachos. But I didn't have those this year, which brings us back to the love story. Don't worry Mom, it's not my love story. It's a love story between a young Dennis Hopper and a mermaid.
Yes, you read that last sentence right. A young sailor played Dennis Hopper falls in love with a sideshow mermaid in Night Tide, a brooding and mysterious melodrama from 1961. Directed by Curtis Harrington, the film is a poetic black-and-white tale that feels a little like the original Carnival of Souls when it draws us into the quiet world of this lonely young soul. The film's setting also draws parallels to that horror classic - the love interest, Mora the Mermaid, lives in an apartment on top of a merry-go-round on the Santa Monica pier - but the tone of this film seems to be less aggressive than most horror films. You know how the mediums in horror movies always can feel whether or not a spirit is malevolent or benevolent? This movie's the benevolent one.
Dennis Hopper wasn't quite the Dennis Hopper that movie buffs know and love yet - in fact, it would be a full TWENTY-FIVE YEARS before the role in Blue Velvet that he's probably most infamous for - and it's weird to see him as this young, normal, and (dare I say it) innocent man. Hopper had been around, on both the big and little screen, for almost a decade (most notably appearing in two of James Dean's three films in supporting roles) when he took the lead role here, but there still isn't a lot here that would make someone guess that he would become the scenery chewing force of nature that built his Hollywood legacy. But when you look at the film as someone who knows Dennis Hopper's later works, it's easy to see why he adds to this film as the lovestruck lead. The whole film has a kind of taboo feeling to it, and it's easy to see Dennis Hopper as the guy who might be vulnerable to the bizarre.
Speaking of that bizarre plot, the film's story primarily deals with the young man's quest to determine if his love interest is our is not actually a mythical creature. As Hopper's character wanders around the film, we realize that the supporting characters seem to hold the keys to the film's mystery. They are led by the drunken captain who found Mora on a tropical island, a fortune teller who hangs out around the seaside carnival, and a mysterious woman in black who seems to haunt Mora and her new lover. The film is very meticulous as it shows us how each of these people may or may not have information on this mermaid woman, and each interaction between them and the sailor leaves us with questions about where the film will go next.
I've mostly talked around Mora instead of about her thus far, which kind of sums up her role in the film. The character is played well by Linda Lawson, who manages to give Mora the exotic beauty that is advertised at her show while also getting us to buy in to the idea that she is a tortured soul. The first hour of the film doesn't offer a lot of actions that would make us worry about Mora or her suitor, but the actress' tone of voice and dream-like manner of moving through scenes - paired with a musical score that seems to bleed drama into the film - had me caught up in their tale from the start.
The final half hour of the film ramps up the tension considerably, and it can be a little difficult to keep track of where the film is going. The plot's developments remind a little bit of Hitchcock - there are moments that could be seen as twists on Vertigo and Psycho here - but it's also clear that Harrington wanted to ground his film in a macabre place when he references Edgar Allan Poe with an on-screen passage. The film never reaches the heights that these two legends of storytelling did - few filmmakers ever have - but the mood still makes it a unique and captivating film. I find myself unable to look away from Night Tide, and I think any patient viewer with a taste for cinematic oddities will have the same excellent problem.