Legends have it that sailors were once lured to their deaths by the beautiful, but deadly sirens. The sirens are mermaids that would sing out to sailors and cause them to abandon their ships and swim out to their deaths. Of course, everyone knows these are just legends and not based on any real facts… or so we believe.
The 1961 film Night Tide (written and directed by Curtis Harrington) tells the story of Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper). Drake is a navy sailor who’s come to the Santa Monica Pier to enjoy his leave from his base in San Diego. During his visit he meets Mora (Linda Lawson) at a bar. They sit together, but Mora shows little interest in Johnny. When a strange older woman enters and speaks to her in a language Johnny doesn’t understand, Mora becomes visibly upset and flees the bar. Johnny pursues her and despite her reluctance to engage with him, Johnny is persistent… possibly to the point of being a stalker. However, his determination pays off when the young woman finally agrees to see him again.
Mora tells Johnny she has a small apartment over the carousel on Santa Monica Pier. He plans to meet her there the following morning for breakfast. When he arrives, the young sailor meets the carousel operator (Tom Dillon) and his granddaughter Ellen (Luana Anders). Though Ellen shows interest in Johnny, he only has eyes for Mora.
Johnny and Mora’s date goes well and the two hit it off. Johnny asks what Mora does for a living and she explains that she works as a mermaid in one of the sideshow attractions on the pier’s midway. She says she puts on a fishtail cover for her legs and sits in a tank with a water-filled window between herself and the public, so though she is not underwater, it looks like she is to those who pay to see her. Mora takes Johnny to meet Captain Murdock (Gavin Muir), the operator of the mermaid attraction. Murdock seems a bit put off by Johnny, but the young sailor is too smitten with Mora to notice.
Things take a strange turn when Johnny next visits Mora on his next shore leave. He again goes to the carousel to see her, only this time before she arrives Ellen and a strange fortune-teller named Madame Romanovitch (Marjorie Eaton) warn the young sailor that Mora may be more than she appears. Ellen tells him that Mora’s last two boyfriends died mysteriously, drowning soon after they started seeing her. She warns Johnny to be careful.
Later, during one of their dates, Mora begins dancing to a band on the beach. As the tempo increases, the young woman seems to become mesmerized by the music. That is when the strange old woman who approached her at the bar appears again. Mora seems to go into a frenzy at the sight of the old woman, dancing faster and faster until she finally passes out.
Mora later admits to Johnny that she’s afraid that she might actually be a siren from the sea and that Johnny should leave her. She explains that Captain Murdock found her as a young orphan on a small Greek island and he took her in and cared for her. Mora has come to believe that the reason she was alone on the island was that she was taken from the sea and trapped on the land. She also says that Johnny is in danger if he stays with her.
Johnny thinks this is all kind of crazy. However, as more evidence emerges that there is something strange going on with Mora, his doubts begin to waiver and Johnny wonders if he’s fallen for a siren’s beauty if not her song.
Night Tide is an interesting little arthouse film that is more of a science fiction/thriller than a horror story. Harrington wrote an engaging story of love and mystery which he brings to the screen as a visually solid film. Lawson does a good job portraying the troubled could-be-mermaid Mora and Hopper lends a certain youthful charm to his role as the naïve sailor. However, the film fails in that it’s paced too slowly.
After watching the whole feature, which has a satisfying, if somewhat tragic, twist to the end I was left with one strong thought--that this would have been an excellent story for an episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. It just didn’t have enough meat on the bones to make a feature-length film. Slow pacing and padding for time aside though, Night Tide has a good story at its core and is well enough made that it’s worth sitting through the fluff to get to the key points of the story. So check out Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide. Just don’t expect a lot of horror in this film, despite where it shows up in Amazon’s film library categories.