- Bryce McGuire
- Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, Amelie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren
- 98 min.
- Release Date
A pool is a sign of class in the suburbs, especially in Minnesota, where a basic in-ground pool is even more frivolous because it’s unusable most of the year. Having one means you’ve made it—and you’re living out Clark W. Griswold’s version of the American Dream. It’s the cherry on top of prosperity. For the family in Night Swim, the haunted pool in their backyard seems to be the answer to their family’s problems: “We’re the pool family now,” announces the teen daughter proudly. Meanwhile, Dad stares out at the pool like Jack Torrance at The Overlook Hotel, and we know something is very, very wrong. This odd riff on The Shining (1980), with a few hints of Jaws (1975), plays like a bad Stephen King short story and even feels aligned with the author’s themes. But by the end, the generic scenario’s underdeveloped characters don’t amount to much and, aside from an effective jump scare or two, the filmmakers have too little fun with the inherently absurd concept.
The first major studio release of 2024, Night Swim was produced by Blumhouse Productions and distributed by Universal Pictures. Most years, the first new movie in theaters is disposable schlock meant as counter-programming to the season’s predominance of awards bait. Blumhouse supplied an exception to that rule a year ago with M3GAN, an assured surprise that has since maintained some cultural currency. But there’s nothing so surprising about Night Swim, a by-the-numbers supernatural thriller where the haunted house is narrowed to the natural spring pool in the backyard. Writer-director Bryce McGuire based the feature on his spooky 4-minute short film from 2014 of the same name, which he made with Rod Blackhurst. Unfortunately, McGuire seldom winks at the audience, preferring to play things straight, which is hard to take given the silly setup. More often than not, the result is unintentionally funny, draining any intended horror escapism from the experience.
It’s a shame McGuire didn’t inject more humor into his movie because there’s potential here for a genre riff. Consider the prologue set in 1992, where Rebecca (Ayazhan Dalabayeva), a young girl in bunny slippers, attempts to recover her ailing brother’s toy boat from the bottom of the pool. When she falls in, the pool’s illumination flickers like a faulty flashlight held by someone investigating noises in the dark. A shot from underneath shows Rebecca treading water, recalling the opening of Jaws. Sure enough, she’s soon thrashed about like Susan Backlinie before disappearing, while the culprit remains unseen for most of the movie like Bruce the shark. The sequence could hardly be called scary, but the child in peril establishes a sense of danger. But it’s all so familiar that it might as well be a spoof.
Thirty years later, the setup proper follows the Waller family, who acclimate to their Twin Cities suburb after buying the home whose pool, unbeknownst to them, is responsible for countless disappearances. At first, the pool improves their lives. Ray (Wyatt Russell), a professional baseball player who was forced out of the game after developing MS, uses the natural spring water to aid with his physical therapy. His wife, Eve (Kerry Condon), and their children, the teen daughter Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and the awkward preadolescent Elliot (Gavin Warren), enjoy family time together in the water. But the resident harbinger, a bearded pool tech (Ben Sinclair) who philosophizes about humanity’s ancient relationship with water, suggests it’s unnatural that something primordial should call us back to the substance from which we evolved. Sure enough, Ray, who miraculously heals from the water, says that the pool is “the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” while the rest of the family is unnerved after seeing strange apparitions around the pool at night. Is the pool helping them or haunting them? “What if it’s both?” Elliot asks.
As Night Swim escalates, the mythology behind the pool, which I will not divulge here, is revealed—and admittedly, it’s a neat idea. But McGuire resorts to some basic horror movie tricks to explore it: ominous figures loom (or float or swim) out of focus in the background; Eve investigates the pool’s troubling history; and the Wallers forget to turn on lights at night, even when they’re most terrified. By the time Ray begins coughing black bile and chasing his family around the house, the specifics of the pool are less important than the familiar genre territory McGuire has drawn from, and not with a terribly inspired execution. Cinematographer Charlie Sarroff at least capably shoots the movie; though, it’s clear the 98-minute feature was cut down by editor Jeff McEvoy, leaving a few scenes with awkward cuts and confusing details. But it’s Mark Korven’s score that does most of the heavy lifting, forcing jolts with loud pangs in the music where a genuine scare should go.
If not for the credible cast, Night Swim might be dead on arrival. Russell is a likable screen presence and sells his role with typical dad behaviors, such as doling out advice by way of baseball metaphors. Condon’s Eve is a contradiction but not in a compelling way, at one point claiming she used to be scared of pools as a child, at another saying her Navy father taught her water rescues. But she’s a far stronger character and motherly protector than Wendy Torrance. The kids just lack dimension. McGuire attempts to enliven the material with horror-inflected versions of nighttime Marco Polo (as well as day swims and even a pool party), but all the pool action just underscores how the short film worked better as a 4-minute concept, not a full-length feature.