Last year, Universal Pictures and Blumhouse Productions surprised the hell out of us with their sleeper hit M3GAN, a rather effective man vs. machine sci-fi/horror tale. Based on the trailer for Night Swim, which came out of nowhere only two months before its release, it wasn’t too much of a leap to think that Blumhouse had done it again. This trailer (which you can see at the end of this review) spooked the hell out of me and made Night Swim a must-see on my 2024 list.
I wanted to love this movie so badly. But let’s start with this: Night Swim tries to reach for greatness, but its arms are too short. The filmmaking itself isn’t bad, the performances are good, the pacing is just about right for this kind of film, and the scares – especially in the early goings – are effective. So what’s missing? Its own sense of self.
With it, the stakes would have been felt rather than numbing us to them. The constant theme of sacrifice – whether for family, a dream, health, etc. – gets hammered into us over and over from the beginning, becoming the only throughline with which Night Swim operates. Everything else is just an easy setup that, for most horror fans, doesn’t require much from the audience. That it also doesn’t take any chances and relies heavily on previously-existing material gums up any potential for it to stand on its own.
Take a look at director Bryce McGuire’s original short film, co-directed by Rod Blackhurst (who carries story credits in its feature-length expansion). There’s palpable tension in this short’s 33 shots, and the story’s told efficiently and eerily. McGuire does translate some of that tension to his film, but in the course of drawing it out, efficiency and eerie get thrown out the window in favor of making too much of an effort to keep the audience in the game.
Too much is made of Ray Waller (Wyatt Russell) being a former pro baseball player sidelined by a career-ending malady of some kind – it might be multiple sclerosis – but not enough is given to us to let us know how it’s affecting him other than requiring the use of a cane. His wife Eve (Kerry Condon) is tired of having to put the kids through move after move whenever he’s traded, and she’s got her own new job as a school admin. The kids – Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and Elliott (Gavin Warren) – are your run-of-the-mill siblings, sweet toward each other one minute and mean enough to spit the next.
They land in a house with a pool in the backyard – a filthy, disused pool that hasn’t seen chlorine in years. But when Ray fixes it up and starts using it, his symptoms suddenly dissipate and he’s back to swinging the bat like he never put it down. You know there’s a price that’s going to come due, and it’s just a question of who pays it. And when people use the pool at night and start seeing things they shouldn’t be seeing, the film’s teeth start to get bared, prepping us for a good time… right?
Not really. McGuire leans on films like The Ring (a curse is set upon a family and a lone mother investigates), The Amityville Horror (a family moves into a new place only to be set upon by spirits), and Poltergeist (too many similarities to list) to flesh out his and Blackhurst’s original short. There’s even a little bit from A Nightmare on Elm Street that gets copped. Also relied upon is what TV Tropes calls the “Ominous Obsidian Ooze,” where a dark sludge is forced into someone’s mouth and their eyes start doing that thing from “The X-Files” when someone’s possessed by the Purity fluid. Night Swim doesn’t have a life of its own; it’s made up of fractions of other films’ lives to make a somewhat coherent whole, and it gets buried under the weight of these influences.
Yet, when the film sticks to the source material – night swims equal danger – the film packs a punch, scaring us in all the right places and making us jump out of our seats. The actors playing the Waller family are perfectly cast and emote their situation well, carving out believability in a decidedly unbelievable circumstance. For the first half of the film, Bryce McGuire has us in the palm of his hand, showering us with good family vibes mixed with genuine frights. As I said, McGuire’s filmmaking is not in question here; it’s more his choice to lay everything out to the point where nothing is left to the imagination. In that, Night Swim becomes trite, undoing the goodwill fostered by its forebear and the trailers that gave us the promise of something more than it would ultimately become.