Home » ‘Night Swim’ is a Melodramatic, Scare-Free Slog [Review]

‘Night Swim’ is a Melodramatic, Scare-Free Slog [Review]

In Night Swim, the always-welcome Wyatt Russell plays a father of two whose promising baseball career has been tragically cut short by an MS diagnosis. If that sounds like a surprisingly dark plot point for a movie that’s ostensibly about a haunted swimming pool, well, strap in. Night Swim may have the might of James Wan’s Atomic Monster behind it but the next Malignant it most definitely is not. This is a woeful, inexplicably earnest horror movie that for some reason expects us to care more about the travails of a barely sketched, milquetoast white family than plunging us headfirst into the murky depths to have some real fun.

Frustratingly, Night Swim opens with an Asian family in the early ‘90s, the daughter succumbing to the pool in question while her terminally(?) ill brother watches on helplessly. At the risk of alerting the worst denizens of Twitter, are we really still doing this? Are we still making mainstream horror movies with all-white casts and patting ourselves on the back for giving some POC characters about five minutes of screen time? That’s not to say Russell, as the tortured, drawn Ray, and Oscar nominee Kerry Condon as his long-suffering wife, Eve, don’t do a good job with the pitifully underwritten roles they’ve been given (the less said about their two children, who are essentially ciphers with one-line descriptors like “mean tween” and “friendless loser,” the better).

Russell does a fine job communicating the hurt behind Ray’s eyes, his frustration at having to give up his dream while also inevitably becoming a drain on his family, who must rally together to help him even get around the house, always painfully clear. The actor fares less well when the script, which appears to have been written on the hop, requires him to experience a miraculous recovery thanks to the haunted pool, a wildly irresponsible and borderline offensive move that doesn’t even make sense narratively. Co-screenwriters Bryce McGuire, who also directed, and Rod Blackhurst make a half-assed attempt to justify that the pool takes just as much as it gives but the explanation is so underdeveloped and comes so late in the story, that it confuses more than it shocks.

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The initial teaser trailer for Night Swim hinted that the evil entity was some kind of Creature from the Black Lagoon style foe but the reality, as has sadly become the norm with this kind of Friday night fare–which is cynically engineered purely with mass market appeal in mind–is far less exciting. It’s yet another dull paranormal terror, complete with unconvincing CGI and frustratingly dumb decisions from the protagonists (seriously, the number of times someone leans precariously over the water in this movie before inevitably toppling in is laughable). Likewise, McGuire’s movie, adapted from his own 2014 short of the same name, doesn’t play by its own rules, frequently flitting between the pool being the source of all danger and any water anywhere being controlled by the entity when it suits.

Even worse, the scares are derivative, uninspired, and telegraphed to the point of absolute madness, suggesting a lack of confidence in the unavoidably thin material. Little attempt is made to shoot the pool in a manner that would communicate a sense of encroaching danger, and the title is misleading considering several attacks take place in daylight. The scares are also highly repetitive, likely because there isn’t a whole lot you can do with a haunted pool–especially when you’re treating it with such deadly seriousness rather than the campness it rightfully deserves. Consider Shark Pool, a lively, tongue-in-cheek short in which, when a character suggests they just stop getting in the pool, someone else responds with absolute sincerity: “No, it’s too hot!” There’s none of that energy here. This melodramatic sludge might as well be Midsommar given how seriously we’re expected to take it.

Treating this kind of material with the utmost sincerity isn’t necessarily the wrong move, and it could even result in total hilarity as with the aforementioned Malignant, but McGuire and Blackhurst consistently fail to convince us that what’s happening to the central family is worth investing in, to the extent that Ray’s failed baseball career is given considerably more airtime than anything else, whether it’s his daughter’s crush on a local jock or his wife’s job, which is only briefly featured. Condon, a gifted actor, looks utterly lost throughout, not least because she’s lumbered with the worried mom role, leaving Eve to react to what’s happening around her rather than having any agency of her own. And, much like everybody else onscreen, her reactions also make little to no sense. Crucially, much of the action doesn’t look as though it’s even believably happening in the pool itself due to the spatial dimensions and geography being off, further adding to the artifice of the whole endeavor.

There’s plenty of potential in the premise of an evil pool wreaking revenge on unsuspecting bathers, but Night Swim required either more nastiness or a campier tone to truly sell us on it. Sadly, this anodyne, leaden, bizarrely paced, and frequently incomprehensible slog of a movie isn’t even fun in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way.

Director(s): Bryce McGuire
Writer(s): Bryce McGuire, Rod Blackhurst
Stars: Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, Amélie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren
Release date: January 5, 2024
Language: English
Run Time: 98 minutes

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Written by Joey Keogh
Slasher fanatic Joey Keogh has been writing since she could hold a pen, and watching horror movies even longer. Aside from making a little home for herself at Wicked Horror, Joey also writes for Birth.Movies.Death, The List, and Vague Visages among others. Her actual home boasts Halloween decorations all year round. Hello to Jason Isaacs.
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