Although Curtis Harrington's B-movie debut got slightly dusted with time and is rarely being revisited by movie geeks nowadays, it's off-beat, dreamy atmosphere and occult undercurrent combined with avant-garde cinematography, make it a perfect film challenge for those digging in vintage obscurities and forgotten gems. Made on a shoestring budget and filmed on a location in Venice Beach, California in glorious black & white, "Night Tide" was released in 1961 by American International Pictures and instantly flopped. From perspective of today it doesn't seem strange, because it wasn't much of a cheesy, drive-in flick, providing whole lot of cheap thrills by default like 15 ft women, teenage werewolves, giant crabs or octopusses from outer space – typical exploitation themes for late 50's early 60's AIP repertoire.
By filming a soft mystery, we couldn't grasp till the end and that never would be fully explained, Harrington sparked off instead an occult thriller, which harnessed esoteric tools like Tarot, Greek mythogy and Hitchcockian suspense via experimental cinema tools which he mastered well working with Peter Hamid, Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger on their legendary shorts and then making his own experimental works. In fact, Curtis Harrington was one of Anger's closest friends taking part in "Inauguration Of The Pleasure Dome" (1954) together with other occultists belonging to Agape Lodge of O.T.O. - para-masonic order dedicated to practising Thelemic group rituals of Aleister Crowley. It's when shooting the movie with Anger, he got to meet Marjorie Cameron – John W. Parson's wife – whom he later invited to act as a witch from the sea in "Night Tide".
The whole plot of the film, which draws American sailor on a leave in a seaside town (Dennis Hopper) meeting a beautiful girl working in the circus (Linda Lawson), who he finds out soon is a dangerous femme fatale with an account of two lost boyfriends, both killed in an unusual accident, being herself deeply convinced to be a siren, plays out fundamentally in The Dream Time – a space and time continuum, where imagination is as real as flesh and bone. Harrington's cinematographic experiment with possibilities of setting the action in a sacred space is generally outlined by drifting characters of this bizarre game – sailor, circus people (with retired English captain as a siren show master), witch from the sea and finally the siren herself (girl who doesn't know neither where she came from nor where she's going to). These faint silhouettes – despite their soap bubble quality – pull the viewer deeply into the neverland, where he's supposed to confront the subconscious eye in the eye... exactly what Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren proclaimed in their own works.
Except occult musings, this fascinating film could be seen as a sort of late beat generation offshoot definitely owing a lot to beat experiments with form. It's countercultural derivation becomes strikingly evident in the first scene, when main character randomly meets his soon to be object of desire in a jazz cafe starting out a casual conversation, while bebop jazz is played live in the background. The whole frame of two people just kind of hanging out and falling in love could be actually seen as very beat – it just happened "on the road". Although "Night Tide" has a very tight narration, based on a sound screenplay, Harrington favours rather picturing atmosphere, using minimal dialogues, which serve mostly as the only anchors of a firm reality – barely an offset of The Dream Time. That's where he comes in fact near to Maya Deren's ritual masterpieces like "Meshes Of The Afternoon" or "Ritual In Transfigured Time", which hold onto life of the subconscious in an intriguing manner, with an exception that the latter ones drop linear structure totally.
After all, "Night Tide" is a very unusual picture staying off the rails by going B-movie strictly down the experimental line. Worth noticing is Dennis Hopper's acting as well, rarely brought up in any summary of his – however you wanna look at it – long film career. He's still pretty far from this outrageous, jibbery, drug-fueled style of late 60's, that went on the record around The Glory Stompers" (1968). Here he goes completely with the mood – a rebel soul swinger, who can make his tone of voice significant or suggest something barely with face mimics. It's hard to disagree, that in "Night Tide" Hopper was still one leg in the 50's, getting effortlessly theatrical as if still playing "Macbeth" in Old Globe Theatre, San Diego. His later, condensed fury is totally absent here. Clean face, straight walk, subtle speaking and last but not least almost adolescent emotions. I really enjoyed watching him here and if you feel like checking him in this Harrington's obscure flick, definitely go for it!