VERDICT: This haunted-swimming-pool thriller goes from creepy to ridiculous and back again, but as January-dumped horror films go, it’s a cut above.
Despite the red flags around its theatrical release — it’s a PG-13 horror movie opening in US theaters on the first Friday in January — Night Swim mostly delivers, veering from straightforward shocks to campy excess without ever hitting bottom. A silly film well-stocked with silly attributes, yes, but it does sell the idea of a man making a Faustian bargain with a swimming pool.
The man is Ray Waller (Wyatt Russell), a former pro-baseball player whose career has been sidelined by an MS diagnosis. Moving into a new house with wife Eve (Kerry Condon, The Banshees of Inisherin), daughter Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle), and son Elliot (Gavin Warren), Ray is thrilled with the place’s natural spring pool. (Partially as a place to do the exercises his doctor prescribes, partially because he gets to be the guy who drops “We have a pool.” into casual conversation.)
What the Wallers don’t know is that their pool has a deadly history; the film opens with a flashback to the summer of 1992, when a young girl sneaks out to the pool at night to retrieve her ailing brother’s boat toy, only to be seemingly devoured by some unseen force. Whatever is in the pool seems to be improving Ray’s health, even seducing him with visions of his major-league comeback. But what does it want in return?
Director Bryce McGuire, expanding upon the similarly-titled short film he made with Rod Blackhurst, very skillfully creates tension and suspense — at first, anyway. The first 30-45 minutes of Night Swim play is almost like a Five Obstructions–style exercise: How scary can you make a swimming pool with nothing but committed performances, editing, lighting, music, and gurgly sound effects? Armed with these basic filmmaking tools, McGuire makes this backyard water feature quite terrifying indeed.
Eventually, of course, the movie has to start explaining what’s going on (which is forgivable) and trotting out weird wet monster-people (which is less so), and all that show-and-tell breaks the web of tension that has been skillfully woven. But even as the story goes off the rails, the performances stay committed, particularly from Russell and Condon.
His line readings get wilder as his character is swayed by dark forces, and he fully commits to the movie he’s in without going too over the top; she, on the other hand, provides a necessary anchoring to humanity and maternal concern, and her love for her family and her commitment to their well-being provides the emotional stakes.
McGuire’s screenplay also fits in some memorable character moments for side characters like the family’s unctuous realtor and philosophical pool tech, among others, which both provide levity and add a sense of reality to the otherworldly plot.
Sound designer P.K. Hooker, a Blumhouse regular, plays an essential role in creating the chilling atmosphere; in many moments, it’s just the sound of the water that brings the menace. His work is matched by cinematographer Charlie Sarroff, whose presentation of murky depths, pool covers, and unexplained ripples will trigger the phobias of people who are put off by swimming.
M3GAN raised the bar on January horror releases to new heights, but Night Swim turns out to be a well-cast, no-frills B movie that also offers some genuine tension. (In many ways, it’s almost the Platonic ideal of Blumhouse’s single-setting brand of low-budget thrillers.) Audiences seeking an alternative to awards-season fare have certainly made seasonal hits out of far worse than this.