Tales about mermaids are often thought to be full of wonder and whimsy and giving credit to the music that plays during the intro to Night Tide, it’s understandable why you would think that. But don’t let the score fool you. This is a ghostly tale, about secrets, lies and murder. It will lure you in with a false sense of safety and will play on your innocence. Before you know it, you’re neck deep in panic, wondering if something foul is waiting for you. It’s a smooth, unemphatic transition, like night and day. You don’t notice until it’s too late.
A pre-cocaine fueled Dennis Hopper stars in a tale about mermaids and murder. Murmaider, if you will. Hopper plays Johnny, a sailor on shore leave. This brings him to a small Californian coastal town, where he walks a pier and finds himself inside a cool jazz bar. The local patrons in this scene are actually quite believable as what you would think of as “regulars.” Each person is distinctive, emoting a different mood. Like they are all actually there for different reasons and could tell you their story and you’d believe it. However, they all are moving their head in the same pattern to the music that it’ll make your neck hurt. That is until Johnny notices a striking young woman. He finally gathers the courage to go talk to her, but before he can make casual chit chat, the young woman is scared off by a slightly older looking woman, garbed in black, speaking in a foreign tongue. Like the drunk frat dude when the bar’s closing, Johnny dashes off to hound her. Just cause it’s time to quit it, doesn’t mean you can’t hit it, bro.
It’s interesting to look at a scenario like that in pretext. Although they exchanged about three lines of dialogue, this was considered charming or romantic, especially in the silver age of cinema. A young man would approach you at the bar, ask you your name, tell you that you are beautiful, buy you a drink and give you a kiss, sealing the deal. You were a couple after that. People saw this as romantic and I can see why. A man, tingling head to toe in fear with rejection, shakes his feathers and approaches that stunning girl and asks her name. Nobody does that now, unless it’s through social media. Otherwise it’s considered “creepy.”
Well, we got off track! Johnny walks her home, above the carousel, learning her name is Mora. The next day over breakfast, they seem to be fond of one another and to be honest, the chemistry here is really believable. Telling him she works at the carnival’s sideshow attraction, she invites him to a show where we are introduced to Sam Murdock, an old British Navy Captain. Johnny thinks something may be strange about him, so Mora tells him that she was rescued by him at a young age and adopted. This was back in the day when you could just pick up a random child and claim them as yours willy-nilly. Later that evening while Mora is dancing (either that or the worst wave impression ever), she spots that woman in black and faints. Things sure are getting weird.
Speaking of weird, Johnny learns from local girl Ellen that Mora’s ex-boyfriends have all died mysteriously. Even more mysterious, he spots the woman in black and follows her all the way to Captain Murdock’s place, who seems to be trying to replace his blood with booze. Before passing out drunk and snoring like Tom Arnold inhaling a bowl of hospital Jell-O, he warns Johnny that he is in grave danger as long as he is with Mora. Upon confronting Mora, she tells him that she is of Siren descent and will kill when the moon is full. Women, huh? Always trying to kill you during the cycle of the moon… I’m just gonna stop there. Johnny ignores this hogwash, but soon has a nightmare that she turns into an octopus and tries strangling him.
I bet you never thought you would see Dennis Hopper wrestle a Muppet octopus.
He awakes from this nightmare to find her standing under the pier, calling his name, standing in the way of the crashing waves as if she is trying to drown herself. She’s not tied to the pier, mind you, because most sane people get out of the way of that sort of thing simply by moving their legs and removing them from that particular danger.
The next morning, having slept on Mora’s floor to ensure her safety, Johnny goes to get those kinks in his back worked out by a masseuse. Things get “steamy” while Johnny’s butch, hairy masseuse, Bruno, works on his shoulders. There is nothing wrong with a man giving another man a massage, but it’s the exchange of dialogue once Captain Murdock pops his head in to say, “Hi” that makes this scene a bit awkward. The masseuse asks the Captain if he wants him to, “pound him later,” to which the Captain replies, “Now why would I forgo a pleasure like that?” The movie immediately brushes this dialogue off its’ shoulders and the Captain further feeds Johnny’s fear about Mora. Now, I have no problems with sexual orientation, but it seems out of context in this scene… even for the Sixties. Once again, I feel like I derailed this review. Let’s get it back on track, shall we?
It’s finally the full moon and Mora invites Johnny along for some scuba diving, which he doesn’t think is a good idea, but she manages to coax him into it. It almost proves to be fatal, as Mora removes his breathing gear and swims off. He makes it back onto the boat, but doesn’t see Mora come back up for air. Devastated as the days go by, believing that maybe she really is a mermaid, Johnny finally revisits the carnival when reading her name in the newspaper. Everything draws to a close when he visits Mora’s attraction, but not without a few ghastly twists and turns that, to be honest, you will not see coming.
Night Tide is a suspenseful voyage of perplexity, thick with atmosphere and dread. Dread that builds up like a violin string being pulled tensely, but will not break. I have to admit, it is strange at first to see Dennis Hopper not playing such an oddball character, but he does take this role seriously (but there is still that goofiness we love him for) and his attraction to Mora seems genuine. The two play off of each other so well, you could actually believe they are a new couple, still learning about each other, but in love. Not only that, but it’s a refined film to look at, with almost a perfect gray scale in every scene and objects pop out at you with such depth. Kino Lorber restored this from the original 35mm print and boy, does it show.
Go on leave from your job, rent a seedy hotel room, shack up with a mermaid on a full moon and grab your copy of Night Tide from Kino. Well you don’t have to do any of that, besides watch the movie, but if you’re gonna do it, you may as well go all out.
A’hoy, set your sails for The Lost Highway.