Neither the disasterpiece implied in its “wait, seriously?” premise nor an especially knowing or playful subversion of horror tropes, Bryce McGuire’s Night Swim is, for better or ill, exactly what’s advertised: an earnest thriller about a suburban family being menaced by the evil swimming pool in their backyard. Fans of trash cinema holding out for something memorably deranged in the spirit of Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (extolled in a famous Patton Oswalt comedy routine) are likely to be disappointed by the baseline competence and mostly bloodless scares where, for example, nobody is sucked up and spit out in chunks by an automated skimmer or choked to death with a foam noodle. At the same time, casual filmgoers expecting that Night Swim scratch the same campy itch as M3gan — which was released on roughly the same weekend last year and shares a production company in Blumhouse and a distributor in Universal Pictures — will find a film that takes on its subject with a grim solemnity, as though it were blazing a new path with its curious disappearance of pets, series of mysterious tragedies going back decades, disembodied voices beckoning from drains, and something seemingly “off” about dad. There are laughs to be found, but they’re of the derisive snort variety; as in, surely, the film isn’t about to do the umpteenth variation on the scene where a sage-like supporting character explains that the primordial evil behind the terror demands a blood sacrifice in order to be satiated.
The film stars ascendant, hugely overqualified, actors Kerry Condon (less than a year removed from an Oscar nomination for The Banshees of Inisherin) and Wyatt Russell (almost a decade removed from his should have been star-making turn in Everybody Wants Some!!) as Eve and Ray Waller. Ray is a former major league baseball player struck down and forced into early retirement by a degenerative disorder that’s left him with tremors and requires the use of a cane, while Eve works as a school administrator hoping to get health insurance to cover her husband’s costly treatments (guess those MLB contracts don’t pay what they used to). The couple, along with their two children, boy-crazy adolescent Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and introverted tween Elliot (Gavin Warren), are searching for a new home to set down roots when Ray is drawn to a large, well-maintained house that features an in-ground swimming pool out back in a state of disrepair. It’s as if it’s calling to him somehow. After the whole family cleans out the pool and gets it in working order — complete with a one-scene-heater by Ben Sinclair of High Maintenance playing a pool technician who is a fount of foreshadowing exposition about natural springs — it’s time for family fun in the water. Further, the restorative qualities of the pool seem to go beyond aquatic therapy, as Ray’s doctors note a near complete reversal of his neurological condition which finds him contemplating a big league comeback. But there are signs that all is not well: the cat going missing, Elliot believing a young girl is trapped in the pool, a particularly traumatizing game of Marco Polo where Izzy is almost dragged by something into a “sunken place”-like realm, and so on. And then there’s Ray’s attachment to the pool, which begins to verge on the maniacal; sneaking off for solo swims in the wee hours of the night and becoming physically ill at the mere prospect of being separated from it. But as Eve emphatically declares, echoing what many a homeowner has said when the filters get clogged with hair and gunk: there’s something wrong with the pool!
Strictly speaking, Night Swim isn’t just a killer swimming pool movie, as that would present too simple a solution (although if the characters in Jaws couldn’t just stay out of the water, we shouldn’t expect much from these people either). It’s also a demonic possession film of sorts, with Ray becoming the dry land conduit for the pool’s evil intent, which the film presents as an unbreakable psychic bond between man and water. When Ray finally makes solid contact with a baseball for the first time in presumably years, the film flashes to ripples within the pool — lest we be confused how exactly he got his groove back. If that all sounds spectacularly silly, it is, but the film plays it with a straight face, particularly Condon’s pinched determination to search out answers that finds her scrolling through online articles, each more alarming than the last, and tracking down the house’s previous owner (Russell, for his part, plays his role with an above-it-all level of detachment that feels out of step with the rest of the film, like a Luded Jack Torrance). We get many a bloated ghoul with sunken eyes reaching out from the watery depths, characters regurgitating black liquid or flickering pool lights signaling something ominous. There are a handful of arresting shots filmed from under the water’s surface, including some fish-eye angles and a direct homage to the pool party Steadicam sequence in Boogie Nights. Still, it would be unfair to claim that McGuire phoned the assignment in — the film is a feature-length expansion of a short the filmmaker co-directed, so it very well might qualify as a passion project — but it’s hard to argue there’s an abundance of inspiration either. It mostly feels like a cynical reskin of half a dozen different cursed object and/or location stories of the sort Stephen King used to churn out, only without the killer instinct to let this become notably unhinged or recognize the comedic potential and really lean into it. Instead, the film plays down to the rock-bottom expectations of a calorie-free time-killer dumped into theaters when nobody is especially paying attention to new releases. Or, as the critic sitting behind me at the screening succinctly harrumphed as the film faded out to the end credits: “January.”
DIRECTOR: Bryce McGuire; CAST: Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, Amélie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren; DISTRIBUTOR: Universal Pictures; IN THEATERS: January 5; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 38 min.