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NIGHT TIDE (1963).

Are you ready for Dennis Hopper's first starring role? And (are you sitting down for this?) would you believe he plays a clean-cut, sober and thoroughly straight-laced character? Best of all, the result is a good creepy little yarn! Director Curtis Harrington (THE KILLING KIND, GAMES) made his debut with this ultra-low budget mood piece, which slipped through the cracks and got tossed onto bottom halves of double bills (under BATLE BEYOND THE SUN). It'll try the patience of horror fans going into it expecting cheap shocks, but despite the occasional unintentional laugh or stilted conversation, the film's unique and subtle qualities set it apart... Hopper plays Johnny Drake, a sailor on Shore Leave trying (with little success) to make small talk with women at a jazz club, The Blue Grotto. There he meets Mora (Linda Lawson), a mysterious beauty who lives at a Venice California pier side carnival, in an apartment above the merry-go-round. Mora is a little strange though -- she invites Dennis over for a fresh fish breakfast, is obsessed with the ocean (she "feels the sea water in her veins") and works at the carnival as Mora the Mermaid (the "Lovely Siren of the Deep"), wearing a fake fish tail while laying in a tank of water. She's also followed about by a pesky old woman who speaks to her in a strange tongue. Since swabby Hopper is smitten with Mora, he pays no heed to her eccentric lifestyle, even after he learns her last two boyfriends are dead--both washed up on the beach with a lungful of liquid. The clues slowly drop into place, rumours are bandied about, a crusty old sea captain tells tales of a lost society of Sea People, and a tarot reading only adds more portent to the plot. Are the superstitious townspeople crazy? Is Mora crazy? Is Hopper going crazy? Or is Ms. Mermaid really a psycho from the sea, who like a spider, is forced to kill her mate? (And how much damned coffee can a character drink in 83 minutes? Who sponsored this flick? Maxwell House?) The story may be slight, but Harrington manages to edge it slowly along with a shrewd build-up of suspense, plus the b&w photography by Vilis Lapenieks (MOTHER GOOSE A GO-GO) is suitably atmospheric, with several sequences reminiscent of more European-influenced fare (such as Jacques Tourneur). This is a tidy low-key thriller, but don't judge it too swiftly -- though it's more pedestrian elements are predictable, a small wealth of mystery lies under the surface. Plus, it proves even at the beginning of his career, Hopper didn't have to punctuate every sentence with "man" in order to effectively fill a role. The character of Johnny is so atypical for Dennis, that if not for his immediately recognisable voice, you'd barely remember it's him after a while. The Hop pulls off the prettyboy matinee idol routine and keeps a shred of dignity, even when laying on the beach in swim trunks (hubba hubba!).

© 1997 by Steven Puchalski.