Cult Movie: Mermaid flick Night Tide offers fantasy thrills with a young Dennis Hopper

Linda Lawson enchants the young Dennis Hopper in Night Tide
Ralph McLean

Night Tide

THERE are several reasons why Night Tide is held in high esteem in cult circles almost six decades after its birth. For a start, it's the film that provided future Easy Rider renegade Dennis Hopper with his first proper starring role. It's also notable as film-maker Curtis Harrington's most mainstream movie, a damn fine example of the old "less is more" art of film fantasy which rejected visceral visuals in favour of letting the audience's imagination do most of the work.

Most importantly, I would argue, it's simply a terrific little mood piece about the lesser covered subject of mermaids which continues to intrigue and cast its own unique spell despite the passing decades.

Made in 1961 and released, to little initial acclaim, a couple of years later, its cult reputation has grown over time to the point that Indictator films have now seen fit to unleash a beautiful new extras-packed Blu-ray this very month.

A charmingly low-key chiller concerning a sailor on shore leave (played by a baby-faced Hopper) who becomes obsessed with an attractive orphan girl (Linda Lawson) earning her crust playing a mermaid in a coastal funfair, it's strange and possessed of enough atmosphere and attitude to carry it through any issues that the minimal budget or – let's be honest – totally preposterous plot can throw up.

Hopper's character Johnny Drake desperately wants to get up close and personal with the mermaid girl but is warned by carny owner Gavin Muir that she is genuinely descended from a race of Sea People who must kill when a full moon appears. Get with the mermaid and expect to die a gruesome watery death, is the general gist.

Does that deter the testosterone fuelled sailor from making his advances? Well, that do you think?

Clearly inspired by the thoughtful and moody Val Lewton thrillers of the 1940s that began with Cat People and took in such black and white beauties as I Walked With A Zombie and Isle Of The Dead, Night Tide is full of dreamy sequences and sinister undertones all enhanced by a surging, lyrical score from Laura composer David Raksin.

Hopper is gauche and a little lost looking at times here but he gives an impressive enough performance that would set him on the road to cult stardom in future decades. With much of the film shot on the Santa Monica pier, it all looks lush, despite the minuscule budget, and the subject matter of mermaids and sea people killing off advancing humans is well handled by Harrington, who never falls into the trap of camping things up to ridiculous levels.

Inspired by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, this wispy little 1960s delight is further enhanced here by the inclusion of a second disc of Harrington's acclaimed short films, which take in his 70 years as a film-maker with examples of his documentaries, experimental work and TV commissions. You also get a hefty 80 page book and an old audio commentary from Harrington and Hopper to seal the scaly deal.

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