RetroReviews #38: Night Tide (1961)

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JUNE 22, 2013 SCREENING: NIGHT TIDE (1961)

During my fantasy film marathon, I decided to take a look at a trilogy of mermaid themed movies: Night Tide (1961), Splash (1984), and Aquamarine (2006). They’re all pretty decent stuff, although they weren’t like I was looking for and didn’t really explore the world of these mythological creatures like I hoped. All together, it made me realize that I’d be much happier watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) again, or even Mermaids (1990) even though the latter film has nothing to do with Mermaids besides the title. So how did my three mermaid films stack up? Let’s take a look.

Night Tide is an ultra low budget, black-and-white film starring Dennis Hopper in one of his early roles. It’s the only one of the three movies that didn’t focus on romance, and film is generally classified as a mystery/thriller. The tone of the film is really what sets it apart though. Everything is in a sort of dark, cloudy, ominous setting, with lots of strange sound effects and music cues. It’s been called a “mood piece” and I’d say that’s pretty accurate. The dialogue and story are not so much important, as the type of tone the movie sets.

The story itself is actually quite similar to the Cat People films. Of course, I’d consider those movies more enjoyable because they had a unique type of creature not seen in other cinematic stories (namely, werecats) and they were much more direct and pointed with how the film unfolded its mystery story. Night Tide gets you into its strange little world, but it can really drag at times, and seems to pointless during certain scenes. Much of the dialogue is forgettable and mundane, although the premise is intriguing – Mora “The Mermaid” on display at the local cardinal sideshow may in fact be a real mermaid, as she believes herself to a descendant of sirens who is only now living life as a human, and confides in Johnny Drake (Dennis Hooper) that she is terrified the sirens will come back to claim her.

The 84 minute movie seems to go on forever, though. Dennis Hooper appeared in a similar type of story during his early career, playing a brash young neo-NAZI who meets a mysterious shadowy figure that advises him in the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “He’s Alive”. That was one of the rare hour-long Twilight Zone episodes during the show’s fourth season, and Night Tide could have easily worked as one of the hour long Twilight Zone episodes. That’s not to say I was keen on the format, just that this particular film was well suited for it.

Night Tide was directed by Curtis Harrington, who Wikipedia claims was a pioneer of “New Queer Cinema”. I have no idea what that is, and something tells me the term probably didn’t even exist when I went to film school a decade ago. In any case, I doubt there was any “hidden” gay or lesbian themes in Night Tide, it seemed like a fairly conventional relationship between Johnny and Mora, as far as early 60s films go, and there were no romantic elements (which I grew to appreciate after viewing the next couple of mermaid movies). Supposedly there is now a “restored” version of the movie, but the version I watched on DVD looked like someone found some 8mm film at a garage sale, and you can tell the film had a budget of only $25,000. It is mostly forgotten today, but its easily available online for free, and can be seen it its entirety on YouTube.

The film stands out for a fairly unique story about a mermaid and having an interesting approach to it (especially given the lack of any other such mermaid themed movies in 1961), so I think it deserves a positive review. Of course, when it comes to how enjoyable it actually is to sit through, and whether it has any lasting impact, I would be much more hesitant to sing the film’s praises. It is what it is, and I applaud the fact the film exists and tries to be innovative.

** ½ out of ****

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