Curtis Harrington, 80; experimental filmmaker later turned to horror

Times Staff Writer

Curtis Harrington, a onetime experimental filmmaker who earned a reputation in the 1960s and ‘70s as a master of the macabre with films such as “What’s the Matter With Helen?” and “The Killing Kind,” has died. He was 80.

Harrington, who suffered a stroke in 2005 from which he never fully recovered, died Sunday evening at his home in the Hollywood Hills, said his friend Robert Mundy, a screenwriter.

Originally known for his short, experimental films in the 1940s and early ‘50s, Harrington was working as an associate producer for producer Jerry Wald at 20th Century Fox when he took time off in 1960 to direct his first feature film, “Night Tide,” released in 1961.


In what a New York Times reviewer called “an eerily poetic mood piece,” the low-budget independent film starred Dennis Hopper as a sailor who falls in love with a girl who works in a water tank as a sideshow mermaid. But, as a tagline for the film asks: “Was she Human? ... Sensual ecstasy becomes supernatural terror!”

The film, which Harrington also wrote, gave Hopper his first leading role.

“I asked Dennis to be in it because he was very much a part of the avant-garde scene in Southern California, and he told me he’d really admired my short films,” Harrington told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 1998.

In March, Harrington and Hopper appeared at an American Cinematheque screening of “Night Tide” at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

“He’s always been a dear friend through the years,” Hopper said of Harrington this week. As a director, “he allowed me all the freedom that I wanted; he was very gracious. I enjoyed Curtis always. I’ll miss him.”

Among Harrington’s films are “Games” (1967), a psychological thriller with Simone Signoret, James Caan and Katharine Ross; “What’s the Matter With Helen?” (1971), a horror film co-starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters; “The Killing Kind” (1973), an exploration of a psychopath’s mind starring Ann Sothern and John Savage; and “Ruby” (1977), a horror film with Piper Laurie and Stuart Whitman.

Harrington, who directed episodes of “Charlie’s Angels,” “Dynasty” and other TV shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s, also directed TV movies such as “Killer Bees,” “The Cat Creature” and “The Dead Don’t Die.”


But although most of his credits as a film director were categorized as horror movies, “he transcended the genre,” said film critic and former Times staff writer Kevin Thomas.

“He was a real artist,” Thomas said. “His films had psychological levels and artistic dimension that the average horror picture lacks. He was not in suspense and horror just to give the audience jolts; they had to grow out of the situations and characters.”

Producer and screenwriter Dennis Bartok, former head of programming for the American Cinematheque, said that “one of the things that was so great about Curtis was his movies almost occupied their own genre.”

“They definitely had elements of the macabre, horror and the supernatural,” Bartok said. “But they were also very singular and individualistic, very mysterious and elegant. Also very experimental: You could see ties to all the avant-garde films he had done in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s.

“If you believe the director is the author of a work, certainly Curtis’ movies would be Example A, because any time you look at a Curtis Harrington film you immediately know who directed it. It really had his signature all over it.”

Although reference sources say Harrington was born in Los Angeles on Sept. 17, 1928, Mundy said Harrington had told him that he was actually born in 1926.

Harrington was living in Beaumont, Calif., when he began making experimental films as a teenager. He later attended Occidental College and UCLA and received a bachelor’s degree from USC in 1947.

In the early 1950s, Bartok said, Harrington “was really instrumental in helping to rediscover James Whale, the director of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Bride of Frankenstein,’ at a time when Whale was pretty much forgotten by everybody.”

Bartok said Harrington “wrote one of the first scholarly articles about Whale and became his friend and supporter. He also was instrumental in saving one of Whale’s best movies, ‘The Old Dark House,’ from being lost forever.”

While living in Paris for a year in the early 1950s, Harrington wrote a monograph on legendary director Josef von Sternberg that was published by the British Film Institute.

Known for having what Bartok called “a wicked sense of humor,” Harrington frequently hosted parties in his Mediterranean-style villa in the Hollywood Hills. “He threw a Valentine’s Day party that was legendary,” Bartok said.

In 2002, Harrington returned to his experimental filmmaking roots with “Usher,” a 38-minute film based on the Edgar Allen Poe story. The film, in which Harrington played the leading roles of the brother and sister, has been shown at several film festivals.

“It was,” said Mundy, “a heroic achievement to produce, direct, write and star in a deeply personal film at the age of 75.”

Funeral and memorial service arrangements for Harrington, who had no survivors, are pending.