Night Tide | Curtis Harrington’s cult fantasy feature debut and eight rarely-seen experimental shorts get a luminous UK release on Blu-ray
Presented by Nicolas Winding Refn in a new 4K restoration, Curtis Harrington’s 1961 fantasy thriller Night Tide is an offbeat classic of American independent cinema, and it makes its UK Blu-ray debut with this must-have box-set from Powerhouse Films.
Night Tide sees Dennis Hopper (in his first starring role) playing a sailor on shore leave in San Diego, where he meets a young woman called Mora (Linda Lawson) who not only works in a sideshow as a mermaid, but actually believes she is one of the mythical Sirens, who lure young men to their deaths…
A dream-like fusion of arthouse, expressionism and the surreal, dominated by high-contrast lighting and deep shadows, Harrington’s first feature pays homage Val Lewton (one of Harrington’s heroes) and his classic 1942 chiller Cat People – and cements the young film-maker’s poetic cinematic vision that was born out of his earlier experimental shorts. This new restoration is simply luminous and one that I can happily watch over and over again.
Exclusive to this two-disc region free set is a bonus Blu-ray devoted to eight of Harrington’s short films. Previously released by Flicker Alley and Drag City in the US following painstaking restoration by the Academy Film Archive (that was carried out between 2003 and 2007 – the year of Harrington’s death, aged 80), these shorts (also making their UK Blu-ray debut) are a key insight into Harrington’s development as a film-maker…
The Fall of the House of Usher (1942, 10 mins): Inspired to become a film-maker after reading Paul Rotha’s The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema, Harrington was just 16 when he crafted this hallucingenic and campy homemade short in which he plays both Roderick and Madeline Usher. It might be very low budget is bursting with style that would later inform his cinematic vision.
Fragment of Seeking (1946, 14 mins): This ‘examination of youthful narcissism’ was heavily influenced by Maya Deren’s influential Meshes of the Afternoon and is very much a companion piece to Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks in its exploration of homosexuality. In fact, when the two friends first screened their ‘erotic dream pieces’ to an LA art group, they were deemed ‘very sick boys’. Good on them!
Picnic (1948, 23 mins): Harrington persuaded his own parents to star in this ‘satire of middle-class life’, in which an angry young man chases false love and desires to escape authoritive control. Acclaimed French director and film critic Jacques Rivette praised the film’s poetic expression.
On the Edge (1949, 6 mins): Surrealism comes to the fore in this powerful short about youthful dissatisfaction and human frailty, which uses the wild and desolate landscape of Salton Sea (near Brawley, California) to great effect.
The Assignation (1953, 8 mins): In this love letter to Venice and in his first short in colour that was long deemed lost until it was rediscovered in the vaults of the Cinematheque Française, Harrington explores themes of ‘fleeting human connection’ while also showcasing the city’s brooding architecture.
The Wormwood Star (1956, 10 mins): This is my personal favourite and comes with a very interesting history. Entranced by the LA artist Marjorie Cameron, a magnetic and alluring woman whom he had met while appearing in Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome and who makes a witchy cameo in Night Tide, Harrington crafted this arty occult short to ‘present Cameron/the artist as alchemist who, through her creative work, becomes herself transmuted into gold’.
Very much part of the occult milieu of Southern California at the time, Cameron was a unique and troubled soul whose lovers included rocket scientist and Aleister Crowley follower Jack Parsons (who developed a belief system that was later appropriated by Ron L Hubbard — guess what that was?) and psychedelic artist Burt Shonberg (who was commissioned to create the ancestor paintings in Roger Corman’s House of Usher). Cameron later burned most of the pieces that appear in the short (which was filmed in the home of surrealist collector Edward James), so this is only record of her unique artistry.
The Four Elements (1966, 13 mins): Commissioned by the United States Information Agency, Harrington was tasked to make this propaganda film to show off the might of American industry. He does so, but with his distinctive flair. Following this short, Harrington went on to craft a host of psychological thrillers like Games (1967) and Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1971) that have now attracted cult status, and TV movies like Cat Creature (1973) and Killer Bees (1974), then ended up helming episodes of the biggest and campest soaps of the 19870s, Dynasty and The Colbys.
Usher (2002, 37 mins): This final inclusion sees Harrington return to what made him become a film-maker in the first place: ‘the art of it’. Filmed at his home with a crew made up of friends (and Church of Satan members, Nikolas and Zeena Schreck), its an atmospheric and humourous take on the same Poe tale that began his cinematic journey.
This box-set is currently my No.1 home entertainment release of 2020, and could only be bettered by seeing all of Harrington’s features and TV movies in another box-set or two. In the meantime, here are the complete specs on Powerhouse/Indictator’s fabulous release.
DISC ONE: NIGHT TIDE
• New 4K restoration
• Original mono audio
• Audio commentary (from 1998) with writer-director Curtis Harrington and actor Dennis Hopper (This is a must-listen and very informative on the making of the film – also a piece of cinema history as both of them are no longer with us)
• New audio commentary with writer and film programmer Tony Rayns (excellent as always)
• Harrington on Harrington (2018, 25 mins): wide-ranging archival interview with the filmmaker
• The Sinister Image: Curtis Harrington (1987, 57 mins): two episodes from David Del Valle’s public access series devoted to cult cinematic figures (It was fantastic to finally see this)
• Original theatrical trailer
• Image gallery: publicity and promotional material
• New and improved English subtitles
DISC TWO: DREAM LOGIC – THE SHORT FILMS OF CURTIS HARRINGTON
• High Definition remasters
• Original mono audio
• Eight short films: The Fall of the House of Usher (1942, 10 mins); Fragment of Seeking (1946, 14 mins); Picnic (1948, 23 mins); On the Edge (1949, 6 mins); The Assignation (1953, 8 mins); The Wormwood Star (1956, 10 mins); The Four Elements (1966, 13 mins); Usher (2002, 37 mins)
• Image gallery: production photography and a rare selection from Harrington’s personal collection
• New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
• 80-page collector’s book featuring new writing on Night Tide by Paul Duane, Curtis Harrington on Night Tide and the short films, archival articles by Harrington on horror cinema, experimental films and the making of Picnic, an overview of critical responses, Peter Conheim on the restoration of Night Tide, and film credits
• Limited edition exclusive set of five facsimile lobby cards
Posted on January 25, 2020, in American Indie, Avant Garde, Cult classic, Gay Cinema, Must-See, Thriller and tagged Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hopper, Nicolas Winding Refn, Night Tide, Powerhouse Films. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.