Night Swim Is a Shallow Execution of a Ludicrous Horror Premise
Blumhouse's killer swimming pool movie is the first big disappointment of 2024.
Horror fans have confronted their fair share of haunted houses, haunted vehicles, haunted recliners (I swear), and more, but 2024 is starting off with a bizarre plunge into haunted swimming pool lore. Bryce McGuire's Night Swim exhibits sizable amounts of The Amityville Horror energy, except it's an evil swimming pool instead of an evil house — but it's nowhere near as good. The writer and director thinly stretches his co-created short film of the same name into a feature about the horrors of chlorinated suburban waters.
If that sounds like a silly premise, you're correct. McGuire summons a surprisingly unique backstory for the pool's deadly intentions, but the visuals of possession by drain gunk or neighborhood barbecues gone awry don't match the script's clever approach. Night Swim is not without its dreadfully tense underwater thrills, but it earns too many mood-breaking laughs to be a total success.
Wyatt Russell gets to stretch his horror muscles as Ray Waller, a former Milwaukee Brewers third baseman left rehabbing a potentially career-ending, life-threatening muscular condition. Kerry Condon plays a compassionate stabilizing force in Eve, as the Wallers move into a competitively priced home with one winning factor: a brag-worthy backyard pool. The highlight is a source of immediate joy for the new residents, especially daughter Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and son Elliot (Gavin Warren)... until the visions start. Shadowy figures interrupt midnight dips as beady eyes peer through tainted waters, or so most Wallers claim. Everyone but Ray senses hostility in and around the pool, because he believes their naturally sourced water is curing his illness.
McGuire's not very shy about the film's influences, whether intentional or not. Two sequences might as well be Pennywise's trickery, mainly when Elliot communicates with a soft voice squeezing through an open filter slot like it's a sewer grate. Latin American folklore is represented by how entities resemble La Llorona's behavior, while soggy Japanese horror titles like Dark Water feel responsible for interpretations of mucky demonic wetness. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff taps into primordial aquatic fears prevalent in anyone who watched Jaws too young or spent nights Googling thalassophobia imagery — the latter respectful of how water nourishes our planet, but can snuff us out in a blink. Night Swim plays like an amalgamation of better H2-O-Hell-No nightmares, but does enough turning that into an appropriate exploitation of our childhood paranoias about what lies beneath the surface.
Then again, the inherent ridiculousness of a family spooked senseless by their chemically balanced swimming pool weakens whatever terrors strike. All the pool-based setups work: Marco Polo, diving for quarters, even the back-and-forth camera rig meant to mimic the eyesight of an adequately practiced swimmer. Not so effective are plot fragments intended to advance the overall story, which instead land with a thud or, even worse, a cackle from the audience. Night Swim plays too narratively straight as Eve frantically researches prior victims of the pool or other aspects from the third act I shan't mention, which downgrades energy levels. The logline is sheer lunacy, and yet the film’s execution mimics the direness of a Conjuring movie. Not to say Night Swim should be the next Death Bed: The Bed That Eats, but it’s disappointing just how ordinary this otherwise unorthodox concept becomes.
There's no particular blame to place on McGuire's cast, who play their parts as pawns in the pool's manipulative game (for real). Russell and Condon are suitable for their specific horror archetypes, although some of Russell's line readings are out of sync with the emotions we're meant to feel at a given moment. The kiddies are tortured appropriately, and squeal through their encounters on cue. McGuire invents some groovy scares as the bloated, pruned corpses of forgotten drowned swimmers trick Izzy and Elliot, but the filler context between swim hauntings doesn't offer any actor a chance to shine. Even Russell, who has the most freedom to nail a swelling performance throughout a George Lutz-type evolution, feels limited by the film’s scope.
Night Swim epitomizes that phrase "you can do better, you can do worse." It's a wade into the shallow end of horror storytelling that achieves over the bare minimum, nervy in short bursts but never utterly terrifying. McGuire doesn't quite doom the pool industry like Steven Spielberg chased tourists away from beaches, despite a few eerie supernatural spooks involving inflatable tubes or diving boards. Night Swim is an alright aquatic horror tale that suffers when it's on land, which is a real bummer considering the cast involved. And whatever big swings it makes never knock this feature-length adaptation out of the park.