A series of promising poolside terrors that ultimately end up all wet
Based on the short film by Rod Blackhurst and Bryce McGuire, Night Swim follows the tight-knit Waller family as they get settled into their poolside Michigan home. Dad Ray (Wyatt Russell) is a former baseball player sidelined by a progressing MS diagnosis. At the same time, mom Eve (Kerry Condon) looks forward to putting down roots after Ray’s unpredictable career, along with giving Ray the freedom he needs to focus on recovery. Their kids, Elliot (Gavin Warren) and Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle), are thrilled about making a fresh start. But the pool in the Wallers’ backyard has a history of its own–and a hunger that turns its attention towards the unsuspecting family.
Night Swim begins with the same giddy tension that showed promise in Blackhurst and McGuire’s original short film (McGuire returns to direct solo), with underwater light-bathed sequences that tease the dangers that lurk in the darkness of the deep end. Unfortunately, development into a feature film has forced these deliciously ambiguous elements into the light–cornering this film into an over-explained backstory and rushed resolution that reveals how shallow its ideas truly are.
Giving credit to the ingenuity of its low-budget, high-concept champions in Blumhouse and Atomic Monster, Night Swim manages to find new aspects of its central location to turn into spine-tinglingly unique horror sequences. From the specters that lurk in the flickering shadows beyond the pool light to how the pool itself plays fast and loose with its own dimensions, no element of Night Swim’s pool feels truly safe once a set piece kicks off. While some new “rules” may be gleaned as to how the pool devours its victims, most of the thrill here comes from the same puzzling ambiguity as its shock-and-run original short–the tease that something isn’t quite right, whether it’s supernatural, elemental, or even cosmic, with its true intentions sunken far beyond our depth.
However, fleshing out the source material to feature length does many of these ambiguities a major disservice, as McGuire attempts to tie in the expanded history of the pool in expository scenes that feel as half-hearted as they are half-baked. There remains a visual flair to these moments–as characters who’ve escaped the waters’ grasp remain controlled by them with tell-tale inky smudges from tears, among other gruesome sights. However, some clumsy special effects choices and ill-delivered dialogue land with the same deflating demeanor as switching on a light to reveal a lumpy coatrack rather than a looming demon in the dark.
The cast, the majority new to horror, feels relatively game throughout; however, their overall delivery makes a dramatically uneven splash. Recent Oscar-nominee Condon brings a relatable warmth and gravitas to her suburban mom trope, juggling the tensions of being a primary breadwinner and mother even before the supernatural floods into her life. Wyatt Russell’s turn starts well, as a patriarch whose pool takes on an Overlook Hotel-style draw as it proffers a potential cure to his disease; however, this promising character development requires an eventual menace that Russell can’t quite successfully deliver, as lines meant to strike terror or a well-timed jump retain a mismatched, mellow, and ultimately detached vibe.
Throughout, the creeping tension elevates this aquatic horror film beyond its puzzling premise–but the disappointing payoffs reveal just why Night Swim was released at the start of a new year rather than in the thick of the Horror season months before.
Night Swim debuts in theaters on January 5th from Universal Pictures.