Few months in the year are as scary to moviegoers as January. After the rush of awards season and holiday blockbusters, audiences spend far less time at the movies. Therefore, the studios dump the films they don’t expect to do very well at the beginning of the new year. Especially horror. The release of Night Swim, however, still feels a bit conspicuous. James Wan and Jason Blum recently announced that their studios, Atomic Monster and Blumhouse, would be merging. Their first official co-production? Night Swim, a high-concept horror film centered around a killer swimming pool. It sounds like a great coming out for the partners in terror. Alas, writer-director Bryce McGuire‘s aquatic chiller suffers from a lackluster execution.
Outside of a shockingly stacked cast (the likes of Wyatt Russell and Oscar nominee Kerry Condon are onboard) and a great concept, Night Swim feels like the type of movie struggling to justify its existence. Neat moments drown in a production that’s ultimately confused on where to take its concept. What makes Night Swim as exciting as a deflated inner tube? Read on to find out!
Ghosts of the deep in Night Swim
Based on his short film of the same name, Bryce McGuire has a pretty great hook for Night Swim. Suffering from a muscular illness, pro baseball player Ray Waller (Wyatt Russell) and his wife Eve (Kerry Condon) move with their two kids Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and Elliot (Gavin Warren) to a new home in the suburbs. The main draw for their new home is a swimming pool where Ray can do physical therapy to get back in shape to move back up to the big leagues.
For a time, the pool works… a little too well, curing him of his ailments. Things are decidedly less pleasant for the rest of the family, who begin to have supernatural experiences surrounding the pool. As Eve dives deeper into what’s going on, she discovers a large number of disappearances in the house, specifically surrounding the pool.
In other words, it’s a film about a haunted pool. There are a lot of places you can go with that, and McGuire at least appears to be willing to do some of the groundwork. The Waller family is well-defined, and there’s a slow burn mystery regarding what’s actually going on with the pool.
But when it comes time to actually turn over its hand on what’s going on, Night Swim gets a bit confused. The horror surrounding the pool oscillates from a more straightforward ghost story to a monster movie, with aspects of possession films and cosmic horror thrown in. All these elements are fine on their own, but the way they’re shuffled around here creates a narrative that doesn’t truly have a solid leg to stand on. Ergo, no reason to care.
Wyatt Russell and Kerry Condon try their best
The performances in Night Swim attempt to hold its confused narrative together. Wyatt Russell is buyable as a broken family man trying to hide that from his family. He and Kerry Condon are believable as loving parents, the latter selling the panic of realizing something is coming for her family. Their characters are, sadly, quite underwritten, but you can feel them trying their best to hold the whole enterprise together.
Amélie Hoeferle and Gavin Warren are decent as the children, and in the spirit of fairness the script does attempt to give them their own arcs. I hope to see them again in something that allows them more space to show off their chops.
Unfortunately, the core four of this film cannot fight the script’s messy swerves. Russell‘s character undergoes a significant change in the third act that feels so uncertain that his performance suffers as the basis for it is not fully established. Much of acting is reacting, and that tonal confusion infects the performances. Due to the changing nature, or the script’s clumsy unveiling rather, of the threat, it’s not clear to the audience the severity of what’s going on. Furthermore, the family’s performances seem confused, and they never sell the terror effectively.
There are better scares elsewhere than Night Swim
The cardinal sin of Night Swim is that it’s not very scary. I can go on and on about how the plot’s lack of commitment to the nature of the horror kneecaps it. The fact is, though, that moment to moment it’s simply ineffective. None of this is due to Charlie Sarroff‘s cinematography. He makes a meal out of the pool, its presence malicious as the lights flicker on and off. The sharpest moments of the movie are whenever Sarroff conjures up images unsettling, or, in the third act, really whacked out. What makes this problematic is that Bryce McGuire and co. expect this to carry the film.
None of the big horror moments, save for a serviceable prologue, feel timed correctly. Jump scares fall flat. Moments of suspense play instead like moments to walk out to use the restroom. It’s a perfunctory, obligatory approach to horror, going through the motions of what a horror movie is supposed to be on paper. By the time the credits rolled, it felt more like an exercise in horror movie basics apart from anything necessarily effective.
Night Swim is inoffensive as far as January horror movies go. It doesn’t reach the crushing lows of something like 2020’s The Grudge. Is that praise, though? Not really. If anything, it makes it less interesting. Night Swim is a shallow genre exercise that goes in one ear, out the other. Here’s hoping Atomic Monster and Blumhouse’s further releases aspire to something more than alright for a January horror.
Night Swim in now playing in theaters. Do you plan to see this one, or have you already? Let us know on social media @mycosmiccircus or on The Cosmic Circus Discord.