A sailor (Dennis Hopper’s first starring role) falls in love with a girl in a beatnik jazz club, and is drawn into a strange world in which she may be a mermaid. Part gothic horror, part mood piece, all fever dream.
Curtis Harrington’s gothic masterpiece presented the Restorationists with a case of “they say it can’t be done,” and the gauntlet was thus thrown down. When the NWR archive obtained the film’s precious original camera negative, it was in such an advanced state of decomposition – known to film archivists as “vinegar syndrome” – that it had become entirely unusable in some sections. Some of its once-round five reels had actually molded into octagonal shapes like stop signs.
Vinegar syndrome is the inevitable, unavoidable affliction awaiting all film material manufactured on acetate-based film stock (now essentially out of production in favor of far more stable polyester-based stock). Acetate inevitably wishes to return to its biological nest, as it were: it eventually breaks down, releasing foul acetic acid in a catalytic process which rapidly causes the film stock to shrink, warp and buckle inwardly upon itself, until it can no longer be run through any projector or printer. In its most advance stages, it can turn to viscous goo, or clear sticky shreds of what once resembled movie film with no picture left on it at all. Much as with extremely flammable nitrate film stock of old, which was discontinued around 1950 and was prone to its own types of deterioration, while it isn’t flammable, acetate film’s vinegar syndrome is irreversible and an effective death curse.
The last time Night Tide had had a preservation go-round was under the able stewardship of Academy Film Archive in Hollywood, California, a project started in the last period of director Harrington’s life and completed in 2012. The negative, while terribly shrunken, was still just able to run through an optical printer, very carefully, with a great deal of effort, but as a result, the newly-made preservation elements “baked in” some of the focus and stability problems with the picture which had befallen the ailing source. It was still a huge step forward for a film which had fallen into the public domain, and only poor quality video transfers and prints had circulated on the title for years.
The Restorationists conducted a search of labs which might be able to somehow extract an image from the extremely compromised and delicate original source which was Night Tide and decided on Hiventy in Paris, France. Each reel was then sent there and subjected to a series of “bell jar” treatments of differing kinds, where the acetate would be placed in proximity to plasticizing chemicals, and the film would gradually absorb the chemicals – a process which took months. Gradually, the lab got the acetate pliable enough to allow it to lie flat enough in a scanner for an image to be captured frame by frame on a “pinless” (film-sprocket-free) scanner, because the sprocket holes in the film were too shrunken to be held down by pins.
Once the entirety of the negative was scanned, however, the next chapter in the work kicked off, presenting a host of new challenges. In the years since the Academy restoration, the vinegar syndrome had eaten into the emulsion into some sections, rendering them blotchy and unusable; some sections were so severely warped and deformed that no amount of digital stabilization would steady them. So, it was all the more critically important that Academy Film Archive had done their excellent rescue job when they did, because the duplicate preservation materials they made in 2012 were used to fill in the holes in our negative source. Hiventy matched the material so seamlessly that it is hard to tell the sources apart.
Finally, all of the footage had to be carefully digitally stabilized and “re-dimensioned” to correct the warpage, jitter and other forms of damage caused by the vinegar syndrome deterioration. It was a Herculean effort. The results were so spectacular that the decision was made to create an entirely new 35mm preservation negative and soundtrack, so that this new version of Night Tide will be fully, safely preserved in the trusty analog domain for future generations. It thus becomes the first of what we hope will be many byNWR restorations to conclude with a 35mm film output – the ultimate commitment to preserving the artifact.
Peter Conheim is the lead Restorationist and Archivist at byNWR.com, and the founder of Cinema Preservation Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of endangered films of all stripes, in partnership with archives, private collectors and laboratories.