Written and directed by Curtis Harrington — one of the leaders of New Queer Cinema and also the director of Queen of Blood, What’s the Matter with Helen?, Who Slew Auntie Roo?, Ruby and so many more — this film was always one I wanted to see as it features Marjorie Cameron in a small role.
Harrington had also shot a documentary about her — The Wormwood Star — and I’ll forgive you if you have no idea who she is. Cameron was many things — an artist, poet, actress, and probably most essentially, an occultist. A follower of Crowley’s Thelema, she was married to rocket pioneer and nexus point of all things 20th century occult, Jack Parsons. In fact, Parsons believed that he had conjured Cameron to be the Whore of Babylon/Thelemite goddess Babalon as part of his Babalon Working rite, which he conducted alongside L. Rod Hubbard. No, really. It may have also opened our world to the aliens that have obsessed us since Kenneth Arnold reported a UFO in 1947.
After a suicide attempt and being institutionalized, Cameron gathered a group of magic practitioners around herself that she called The Children, whose sex magic rituals were to create a moonchild. She was now pregnant with what she referred to as the Wormwood Star, but that ended in miscarriage. Many of The Children soon left, as her proclamations of the future had grown increasingly apocalyptic.
Cameron’s orbit — much like her husband’s — unites both the worlds of art and the occult, straddling appearing in the films of Kenneth Anger, working with UFO expert and contactee George Van Tassel and appearing in Wallace Berman’s art journal Semina.
Why did I tell you all this? Because it fascinates me that she’s in Night Tide.
Johnny Drake (Dennis Hopper!) is a young sailor on shore leave who meets Mora (Linda Lawson, who is also in William Castle’s Let’s Kill Uncle), a woman who makes her living appearing in a sideshow. They fall in love before he learns that her past boyfriends have drowned under mysterious circumstances. That may — or may not — be because Mora is a siren, a legendary creature who exists to lure men to their deaths. Adding to her suspicions is the mystery woman (Cameron) who calls to her and demands that she follow her destiny.
One evening, under a full moon, she invites him deep sea swimming, but cuts his hose, forcing him to surface so that she isn’t tempted to kill him. She then swims into the depths of the ocean, fulfilling the call of the mystery woman. And when he returns to the boardwalk, her dead body is still in the mermaid sideshow, now there for visitors to gawk at her dead eyes.
Despite a police confession as to who the killer is, the strange woman in black and her call to the sea is never explained.
Anton LaVey discussed this film in Blanche Barton’s The Secret Life of a Satanist: The Authorized Biography of Anton Szandor LaVey. “There’s a whole genre of films that are just little evocative low-budget gems that I certainly wouldn’t call schlock but that are also being revived as a consequence of more attention in those directions. Director Curtis Hanington’s first movie, Night Tide filmed around the Santa Monica Pier and Venice. California in the late ’50’s, is a psychologically intricate story about a young sailor (Dennis Hopper) who falls in love with a mermaid It’s just wonderful to see these precious works of art being finally given the attention they merit.”
According to Spencer Kansa’s Wormwood Star: The Magickal Life of Marjorie Cameron, Anger introduced Cameron and LaVey, who was delighted to meet the actress, having been a fan of the film.
You can download this movie from the Internet Archive or buy the Kino Lober blu ray. Or check out the gorgeous restored version at Nicholas Winding Refn’s ByNWR site. Refn also owns the film’s original print.