This article was last modified on April 23, 2014.

Night Tide: A Literary and Occult Masterpiece

U.S. Navy sailor Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper) meets shy Mora Murdock (Linda Lawson) in a small, shoreside California town. While they grow more attached to each other romantically, the relationship is strained by the possibility that Mora is not what she seems, but in fact a murderous descendant of an ancient race of merpeople, the Sirens of Greek legend. Is Johnny’s attraction love, or an evil charm?

This film excels both as a good narrative (although it borrows heavily from Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 classic “Cat People”), but also on a deeper, symbolic level. While Dennis Hopper had small roles before this, “Night Tide” casts him as a lead, and he fares well. Reviewer Rick McGrath says, “Hopper’s acting in Night Tide is, I think, ultimately suspect. It’s fun to see him so young, so cute in his tight navy suit, but he plays Johnny Drake as a bumbling, nervous, fidgety, slightly stupid loner … so much so he often seems dislocated from the action and his co-stars.” I do not know that I agree. Surely he comes across as nervous and shy at times, but bumbling? Clearly his character was designed to be young and inexperienced — this is necessary for the scene in which he confronts Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir) in his home and is told tales of the Sirens and is shown a dismembered Arab hand. A hardened sailor would not be so spongelike for forbidden knowledge.

McGrath refers to this film as “a psychosexual tale of freudian camp and hilarity”. I think the truth is deeper than that. Yes, there is more sexuality than is presented on screen, but I do not accept the absurd premises of McGrath, who goes so far as to say one scene involving a dock is “phallic”. No way. Is the film campy and hilarious? To a point, sure. It is the early 1960s and the budget is low — Curtis Harrington was so hard up for cash that he had to set up a Brown Derby lunch meeting with the Mickey Cohen gang to seek financing. But Harrington, the writer and director, seems to have a vision and executes it with finesse. The opening scene clues us in that Harrington is a man who cares about visuals, and we are reminded of this again later on when we see Mora close up in the sideshow mermaid tank. He frames shots to reveal not just an object, but an emotion.

Some scenes may look fantastic because none other than Floyd Crosby did the uncredited camera work. Crosby was probably the biggest name attached to this film, having previously worked with the legendary F. W. Murnau on “Tabu” (1931), where he won his Oscar. Horror fans may know Crosby as a regular with director Roger Corman in the 1960s; he was also the father of musician David Crosby.

The casual viewer may overlook the literary and occult themes present in this short film, but I think the flower that is “Night Tide” cannot fully bloom without this understanding. As revealed in the closing credits, the film takes its name from a verse in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee”:

“And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling – my darling – my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.”

The poem highlight’s Poe’s love of a woman so strong the attraction stretches beyond death, and also happens to be the last complete poem he ever wrote, in essence his “last words”. The macabre nature of the poem underscores the hidden darkness of “Night Tide” that may not be apparent to all viewers.

Captain Murdock is a man with a rich sense of literature and philology. He is clearly familiar with Greek legends, as he relates the tale of the Sirens briefly to Drake. Presumably he is also the one who named Mora after finding her on a Greek island (assuming her revealed origin is truthful). The name “Mora” is likely a variation of the Greek name “Moira”, one of the Fates of legend. Her name in fact translates roughly to “fate”, “destiny” or “doom”, a fitting moniker for a woman who is the death of her lovers. Murdock also paraphrases a notable line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

As an aside, it is worth noting that Harrington named his main character “Drake”, a male duck, which may be symbolic of Johnny’s being torn between land and sea, as ducks are comfortable equally with both. This is clear from his career as a Navy man who spends his time on the ocean, but seems more at home on the shore. And, of course, this parallels his love of Mora, the creature of the sea, with the relative safety of the land where she is unable to lure him to a watery grave.

Most viewers will miss the occult connection, as it is not made overtly clear in the film. The only sign we have to go off of is Murdock’s address in Venice, 777 Saabek Lane. “777” may be familiar to Biblical scholars as one of the numbers of perfection — 7, the number of God himself, combined with 3, the unity of the trinity. It is alluded by this address that Murdock is a man of knowledge and power, both mysterious and esoteric. But also, this is a number associated with Aleister Crowley, the famed English occultist. This is no mere coincidence, as Crowley has a connection to this film.

His connection comes through the woman who plays the “water witch” that speaks the odd language, Marjorie Elizabeth Cameron (1922-1995). Cameron was the wife of rocket scientist Jack Parsons, a friend of Aleister Crowley who was hand-chosen to lead California’s Agape Lodge in 1942. Parsons, incidentally, was also a magick partner with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Cameron came to be involved with “Night Tide” as she had partied with co-star Dennis Hopper in the 1950s, and worked with Curtis Harrington and Kenneth Anger in 1954’s “Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome” — Anger was another Crowley devotee, who also knew Manson Family member Bobby Beausoleil. He later associated with Church of Satan founder Anton LaVey. To say that Cameron, Hopper and Harrington had connections to Crowley and the occult would be a mere truism, and that occult symbolism figures into “Night Tide” should not be considered a stretch. Harrington himself admits that the tarot sequence was based off his research and was not just imaginative writing.

There is a bit of factual goofiness in “Night Tide”, which is surprising from such an intellectual film. The day of the full moon figures in strongly, as this is the day where Mora’s urge to kill is allegedly the strongest. That is understandable and a common trope of horror narratives. But we are told the full moon is “when the tides are highest”, which is utter nonsense. Mora also claims that this day is best for diving, though it is not explained why that makes diving better, and being that they are in the middle of the ocean I highly doubt the difference would be noticeable.

Lastly, it is worth pointing out Luana Anders has a secondary role. Anders is a familiar face to fans of Corman and low budget 1960s horror — she was in both Corman’s “Pit and the Pendulum” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dementia 13″… Because of her role in “Night Tide”, Hopper later cast her in “Easy Rider” (1969), which in turn lead to Jack Nicholson casting her in “Goin’ South” (1978) and “The Two Jakes” (1990), his few outings as director.

Fans of the film will want to make the right purchase. American Movie Classics offers a version, as does Mill Creek. These are watchable, but sadly inferior copies that do not do the piece justice. Anyone who has seen the Mill Creek version of “She-Beast” alongside the Dark Sky version knows that a good transfer is crucial for optimal picture and sound. For “Night Tide”, you will want Image Entertainment’s Milestone Collection edition or the similar Kino release. They have a great widescreen transfer, nice liner notes, audio commentary from actor Dennis Hopper and writer-director Curtis Harrington, and the trailer. (Harrington’s memory is far better than Hopper’s, but they both have plenty to say.) Kino offers an additional 50-minute Harrington interview. No better version will likely ever be released, unless some footage from the cutting room floor miraculously appears fifty years after production.

Any fan of classic films or horror history needs to view “Night Tide” with an open mind and open eyes. This is a film that has largely been ignored in movie history, despite the rich complexity it offers the viewer and unique presentation that we are given. As the film is easily available in any number of cheap horror box sets, there is no reason not to own it, though as I mentioned, any real fan will want the Kino or Milestone Edition.

Also try another article under Film Industry
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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