By Shannon McGrew
Summer and swimming are almost synonymous whether it’s a dip in the ocean at a tropical destination, a lake nested on the outskirts of town, or a neighborhood pool. It’s the symbol of summer and is often linked with family activities such as BBQs. Despite our awareness of water safety, especially in the absence of lifeguards, many of us are used to having a false sense of security, believing that something as upsetting as a drowning could never happen to us. However, in NIGHT SWIM, Blumhouse’s newest horror release, this very notion is tested when a family moves into their new home and encounters a pool with a dark and sinister secret.
In order to keep spoilers away, I’ll turn to the official synopsis: Based on the acclaimed 2014 short film by Rod Blackhurst and Bryce McGuire, the film stars Wyatt Russell ("The Falcon and the Winter Soldier") as Ray Waller, a former major league baseball player forced into early retirement by a degenerative illness, who moves into a new home with his concerned with Eve (Kerry Condon), teenage daughter Izzy (Amélie Hoeferie) and young son Elliot (Gavin Warren).
Secretly hoping, against the odds, to return to pro ball, Ray persuades Eve that the new home’s shimmering backyard swimming pool will be fun for the kids and provide physical therapy for him. But a dark secret in the home’s past will unleash a malevolent force that will drag the family under, into the depth of inescapable terror.
As a fan of aquatic horror and Wyatt Russell, I couldn’t wait to dive into NIGHT SWIM. Director Bryce McGuire’s keen eye for style becomes immediately evident from the outset of the film. Drawing inspiration from classic horror films such as Poltergeist and Jaws, McGuire created a family drama that not only pulls from some of horror's greatest but that also immerses the audience in the watery terrors faced by the family.
On the surface, the film is fairly easy to follow - a family settling into a new home, grappling with unexplainable occurrences with their pool. It’s very reminiscent of any haunted house tale you’ve encountered. I’d go so far as to say there are similar parallels between NIGHT SWIM and the most famous of haunted house stories, The Amityville Horror, particularly in its emphasis on the father figure. Yet, what separates this movie from others is its approach to invisible illnesses, notably through Ray’s diagnosis of MS (Multiple Sclerosis) and the profound impact it had on his career as a major league baseball player.
With Ray’s diagnosis in mind, the pool ends up symbolizing hope - a tangible means for Ray to regain his footing and to chase after his dream once more. With each use of the pool, it becomes a source of solace, though as Ray becomes stronger the question becomes how is the pool doing this? Wyatt Russell does a terrific job showcasing the subtle ways in which the pool begins to alter him. As someone who has navigated life with an invisible illness since my early 20s, I found Wyatt’s portrayal to be relatable especially in regards to the possibility of a potential cure and the reluctance to let that go, no matter the consequences.
While Russell delivers another homerun performance, the remaining cast - comprising Kerry Condon, Amélie Hoeferle, and Gavin Warren - falls short, particularly in the third act. Unfortunately, this takes away from the emotional connection to the family, as it becomes challenging to empathize with characters who lack emotional depth when dealing with such an intense and traumatic experience. While most horror films ask for a suspension of belief, it should be applied more directly to the supernatural elements as opposed to the lack of emotion presented by the family.
Where the film really falters is in its third act when the audience gets insight into the background of the pool and those who came before. Unfortunately, the reasoning behind these supernatural occurrences is more about convenience and less about being impactful. For me, personally, it was an unsatisfying resolution that lacked emotional resonance, resulting in an ending that felt just as deflated as a balloon. That being said, the film manages to redeem itself partially through its scares, which serve as a grounding force to divert attention from the story’s weaker aspects. However, McGuire deserves credit for adeptly utilizing pool-related elements and lighting to execute some of the more unsettling moments.
NIGHT SWIM shows the promise of what McGuire is capable of both visually and story-wise, yet there’s room for improvement, particularly in the character’s emotional execution as well as implementing more cohesive storytelling to sustain its impact until the end. Thankfully, DP Charlie Sarroff’s stunning camera work stands out as a distraction from the story while also complementing the movie’s scares, especially when it came to ominous foreshadowing. Unfortunately, the rushed and disjointed nature of the third act created a choppy ending, causing the film to barely tread water and leave a lasting impression.
NIGHT SWIM arrives in theaters this Friday.