While certainly common, childhood fears aren’t universal. Those fears can depend on any number of factors, circumstances, and/or particulars. For Florida-born-and-raised filmmaker Bryce McGuire, swimming pools, over-represented in a perpetually hot-and-humid state like Florida, became one of – if not the – central fears of his childhood. McGuire spun that obsessive fear, of a bottomless, haunted pool, into a 2014 short, Night Swim, shot in a friend’s swimming pool. While doubling as personal therapy, it also served as a proof-of-concept McGuire could shop around to potential film producers and production companies. Eventually, Jason Blum and James Wan, along with their production companies (Blumhouse Productions and Atomic Monster, respectively), stepped up to help McGuire convert his imaginative short into a full-length feature film.
Night Swim centers on Ray Waller (Wyatt Russell), an ex-major league baseball player grappling with a life-altering medical diagnosis (multiple sclerosis). His post-baseball life isn’t entirely bleak, however, as the end of his career means not just a more settled life, but more all-around family time with his wife, Eve (Kerry Condon), and his two children, Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and Elliot (Gavin Warren). While Izzy seems to have inherited her father’s natural athletic ability, Elliot seemingly hasn’t. Like most kids his age, though, Elliot longs for his father’s approval, joining the local Little League team.
Not without their frictions and conflicts, the family dynamic plays perfectly into the presumably haunted pool of their new home. For Ray, the pool isn’t just a pool. It’s where he can continue his recovery and – when he allows himself to daydream – indulge his fantasy of returning to the major leagues. It seems to work too. Within days or weeks, Ray’s not only feeling significantly better mentally, but physically too. Almost immediately, Ray becomes more self-confident, and happier even, though given the parameters of the horror genre, it’ll be just as obvious to audiences that the positive turn in Ray’s health will come at a cost.
To McGuire’s modest credit, the nature of that “cost” and the rationale for the pool’s seemingly miraculous healing powers don’t become clear until late in the film. It’s a bonus and a plus that McGuire didn’t rely on the usual haunted house cliches typical of The Amityville Horror and its countless imitators (i.e., lingering ghosts, unfinished business, intra-family murder). To be just as fair, though, keen-eyed moviegoers will see a symbolic and thematic connection between the pool, its corrosive, corrupting influence on Ray, and the Overlook Hotel at the center of Stephen King’s bestselling horror novel, The Shining, and Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 adaptation.
Performance-wise, McGuire elicits just the right amount of emotional realism and naturalism to give Night Swim the grounded verisimilitude it needs to keep moviegoers engaged. In their early scenes together, Russell and Condon look, sound, and feel like a long-married couple handling all manner of life decisions, from where to live and their respective futures (murky for him, an advanced degree for her). As Izzy and Elliot, Hoeferle and Warren never cross over into cloying or annoying, an issue not uncommon for first-time feature directors working with children. There’s friction in their interactions typical of siblings on- and off-screen, but “real” affection too. Their note-perfect modulated performances help to elevate their characters from over-familiar, one-dimensional horror stereotypes.
Influences and performances aside, Night Swim unsurprisingly sinks or swims on the quantity and the quality of its set pieces and its scares. While Night Swim contains its fair share of goosebump-inducing scenes (one each involving the two Waller children, one involving Eve), McGuire’s unfortunate overuse of CGI lessens their impact, sometimes to a noticeable fault. And once the shape and direction of the narrative become clear, Night Swim wades into wait-and-see mode, with the audience, all caught up on the lore behind the pool and its healing properties, waiting for – and eventually seeing – a predictable ending that takes an unnecessary number of additional beats to arrive.
Night Swim opens in movie theaters on Friday, January 5th, via Universal Pictures.