Technique can be really important for setting a mood, but sometimes a horror movie succeeds or fails in part based on its concept. In the case of Night Swim, it is quite dull at the technical level. There is some intrigue at the story level, yet that is not the plot thread the screenplay pulls at. There are a few cool shots using water and perspective, disorienting the viewer in the same way the characters are disoriented. Otherwise, the visuals are bland and the jump-scares are ridiculously predictable. The story does have a promising, Monkey’s Paw-esque, element to it. Sadly, that isn’t explored much until the final act, when it is mainly used to build to a very forced conclusion. Most of this is swimmers getting creeped out by whatever is lurking in a haunted pool. Anything can work in this genre if the filmmakers can figure out how to inject tension into it. Here, they never did.
Ray Miller is a former MLB 3rd baseman suffering from MS. When told that he could benefit from water therapy, him, his wife and their two kids move into a nice house in the suburbs that has a backyard swimming pool. After several weeks of using the pool, Ray finds he’s feeling significantly better. His wife and kids, on the other hand, aren’t having nearly as positive of an experience.
It is established in the opening scene of Night Swim (90 minutes without the end credits) that the pool is haunted by some sort of malevolent entity. It would be enough to tease this throughout the movie with ominous noises and half-seen disturbing images. Writer/director Bryce McGuire chooses instead to show the audience everything. “Everything” here consists of weird zombie-like creatures that pop out of the water every once in a while, for the majority of those obvious jump-scares. This is not scary, surprising or interesting.
The story is mostly concerned with setting up excuses for Eve (the wife), Izzy (the teenage daughter) and Elliot (the young son) to go swimming by themselves so they can be terrorized by the possessed water in the built-in swimming pool. Each time they do, McGuire (who expanded this from his 2014 short film) employs the same couple of tricks to try to get a reaction out of his viewers. Maybe those cheap clichés will do the job in the moment; I can certainly imagine someone being temporarily startled by some of this, even if I wasn’t. Though beyond that stuff, this is completely empty. There is no substance, no drama, no tension.
Finally, close to the end, we learn the true nature of what is happening in the pool in a scene filled with so much exposition that it stops everything in its tracks. This is where it is explained that Ray’s miraculous recovery comes with a price. Despite the fact that this isn’t original material, it contains far more stakes than “things occasionally attack people in the water while the lights flicker on and off.” The movie holds off on revealing this for no good reason, giving the audience so little to latch onto that it is too easy to get bored.
As I write basically every year at this time, January and February tend to be dumping grounds for the studios. This is where they release the projects they have absolutely no faith in, hoping that the relative lack of competition will allow them to salvage something out of a less than stellar product. Night Swim is the only wide release this week, so perhaps this approach will pay off at least a little. But there is nothing here to excite anybody. It is run-of-the-mill PG-13 horror, with no imagination, creativity or style.
1¾ out of 5
Cast: Wyatt Russell as Ray Waller
Kerry Condon as Eve Waller
Amélie Hoeferle as Izzy Waller
Gavin Warren as Elliot Waller
Directed/Screenplay by Bryce McGuire