Night Tide. 1961. Directed & Written by Curtis Harrington.
Starring Dennis Hopper, Linda Lawson, Gavin Muir, Luana Anders, Marjorie Eaton, Tom Dillon, H.E. West, Ben Roseman, & Marjorie Cameron.
Not Rated. 86 minutes.
Given the fact Curtis Harrington was involved with Thelema and worked on a couple Kenneth Anger movies it’s no surprise his 1961 feature debut Night Tide is an intoxicating, ambiguous, and subtly terrifying work of cinema. The story, based on one of Harrington’s own short stories, involves a US Navy sailor named Johnny (Dennis Hopper) on leave in a city by the sea when he meets the mysterious Mora (Linda Lawson), who performs in a carnival as a mermaid/may actually be one.
The whole tale combines folklore and human tragedy, crossing the mythology of mermaids with the real loneliness and love experienced by people. Harrington’s story dives into the scary emotions people sometimes feel when they fall in love with a person outside of their world, either culturally, racially, or along the lines of gender and sexual orientation(s), represented by the anxieties Johnny feels when he meets Mora and discovers more about her. There’s also a focus on myths and how they’re used, by individuals and society alike, to control people. Here, the horrors of mythology again involve love, loneliness, and how far a person will go to ensure they remain connected to those for whom they care deeply, even to wildly unhealthy and dangerous lengths.
Mermaids are presented as symbolic of the terror some feel in love someone from a different world than their own. Even as just a woman without the mermaid element, Mora comes from a Greek island, versus Johnny as a red-blooded American man in the United States Navy who’s only seen a few places outside his country courtesy of his career as a sailor. There’s a terror of connection, of moving away from the world Johnny already knows so well. As a man of the Navy, he’s part of an ordered and regimented system with a certain degree of conservative worldview. Being pulled from this place of structure and order is a scary experience for him, made more horrific by the ambiguity of Mora as maybe human, maybe mermaid.
Harrington pulls out all the stops in order to deepen the idea of Greek mythology at play. In one scene, Mora mentions she’s from the Island of Mykonos. According to myth, the island was formed by the petrified testicles – or in tamer stories, the bodies – of the giants slayed by Hercules. The name Mykonos comes from the name of Apollo’s grandson, too. Jumping cultures, in ancient Slav mythology the word Mora relates to a dark spirit that takes the form of a beautiful woman, visiting men in their dreams and torturing them with desire as they drag the life out of them. Moreover, in Serbian the word Mora means ‘night creature.’ All of these add up to Harrington’s cryptic suggestion of mythology as real, rather than solely a vehicle for the story’s larger themes.
Johnny’s anxieties are connected to loving someone he barely knows— a fear and paranoia about the person’s past, who they are, who they’ve been with, what they’ve done. His transient lifestyle in the US Navy allows him only fleeting connection to those he meets on leave, so he eagerly reaches out for connection to somebody. He’s equally concerned by the mystery of the new woman he meets. One scene and image sticks out as significant. In what turns out a dream sequence, Johnny goes to Mora’s apartment. When Mora gets out of the shower she comes to him. Suddenly Johnny feels/sees her tail poking out, and afterwards her arms/whole body become those of an octopus. He’s smothered and choked by tentacles before waking up. A nightmare created out of pure horror because of Johnny’s worries about his sudden case of the love bug for a woman he barely knows anything about.
Only the tip of the iceberg as far as myths are concerned. Harrington’s movie makes a much more serious and upsetting point about the power myths can hold over people, as well as the violent effects of such power.
“I guess we’re all a little afraid of what we love”
What we come to understand is Captain Samuel Murdock (Gavin Muir), who appeared as a father figure to Mora, has manipulated the young woman since the day he met her when she was young. The loneliness of Sam is evident initially because he’s a desperate alcoholic, moving from one bottle to the next. He tells the police and Johnny during the finale how, after he found Mora on the Greek Island, he became attached to her and worried she might leave when she was older. So, he used myth to trap her in a world of his patriarchal making. He told her she was a mermaid and wouldn’t survive on her own, inextricably linking her to him through necessity. He goes so far as to suggest to Johnny, when warning him of Mora being a mermaid, the full moon affects the young woman because it’s when “tides pull the hardest“— not a coincidence menstrual cycles are connected to lunar cycles, allowing us to see this as another woman-specific manipulation by a man. The captain manipulated Mora just as many real men do in actual relationships.
What Cpt. Murdock’s lies illustrate is the danger of making myths out to be real, which is often what people with serious, debilitating mental illness do when they spiral into psychosis. Not unlike the belief in God/any type of religion, prompting people to do terrible things out of the belief they’re doing so from a sense of purpose.
Cpt. Murdock’s lies trap Mora in a psychological space dominated by patriarchy and myth. She’s locked in a place where she only knows one truth: she’s a mermaid. This leads to the climax when she lures Johnny, like a real siren, below the waves, and as they scuba dive she tries unhooking his equipment to kill him. She’s been convinced by Murdock – who murdered her two previous boyfriends at sea – of her mythical status as a mermaid. Because of this she falls into a dangerous mental space which makes her believe she’s responsible for the death of men lured in by her intoxicating aura. Saddest still, Mora loved Johnny so much she punished herself by swimming down to the ocean floor where she’d “embrace the rapture of the deaths.” The captain himself laments his “experiment in psychology,” as well. We see his character as like many real men and father figures who’ve ruined the psychological state of women by lying to them solely out of a controlling desire for love.
“And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.”
from “Annabel Lee”
by Edgar Allan Poe
Parts of Night Tide play as a strange romance between two people from vastly different lives and worlds, whereas other parts are like a cautionary tale about the powerful danger posed by myths being understood as reality. There’s a wealth of theme(s) in Harrington’s story. Mermaids are used here because they encompass the true bittersweetness of life, in that we all experience love – represented by the siren’s romantic lure and lust – and, undeniably, we all experience death in the end – represented by the siren’s luring of men to their demise.
This is in the top five depictions of mermaids in fiction, without doubt. Harrington keeps the story ambiguous right up until the point where he has to reveal the human tragedies and truths of his characters. The imagery’s all subtle, exactly why the ambiguity works. The devastating realities of mythology are always on display.
Night Tide, at its heart, is a tale of what it is to love, in all its glory and its terror, neither mutually exclusive from the other. And this honesty makes Harrington’s feature a near masterpiece in storytelling.