Given the calibre of horror talent on board with Night Swim (between them, producers Jason Blum and James Wan have such genre treats as the Halloween series, The Conjuring films, M3GAN and Malignant), as well as the fact that the short film it’s based on earned critical acclaim upon its release a decade ago, one would have hope when diving into Bryce McGuire‘s macabre waters. Tragically, you might make impact in the shallow end, as Night Swim, despite a promising premise and committed work from its cast, never delves beyond its limitations.
It all starts off rather promisingly with a standard pre-main narrative set piece that lets us know the swimming pool at the film’s core harbours something far more sinister than chlorine. A young girl goes missing in the depths of her backyard pool, and when it’s ultimately revealed just why the structure is claiming the lives of certain individuals, McGuire’s script admittedly turns out a decent hook – one that involves the notion of sacrifice.
It’s a real shame then that between the opening and the hook reveal, Night Swim fails to entice or unnerve with far too much filler and empty scares. And it’s not as if McGuire has the worst idea to emotionally ground his story either, with the Waller family at the film’s heart proving a likeable collective, and Wyatt Russell and Kerry Condon as the head of the clan delivering fine work. Russell’s Ray Waller is a pro baseballer seemingly on the verge of a resurgence when he is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, bringing his playing days and the family’s itinerant lifestyle to an end. Nothing some water therapy won’t potentially mitigate though, so it’s wonderfully coincidental when Ray and his wife Eve (Condon) spot an expansive house in the suburbs for far too good a price; the chipper realtor (Nancy Lenehan) smart enough to know to bank the sale she’ll conveniently leave out the house happened to have a habit of children going missing in the pool in the backyard.
Overjoyed that they can actually stay in one place and lay something of a foundation, Ray, Eve, and their two children, teenage daughter Izzy (Amelie Hoeferle) and pre-teen son Elliot (Gavin Warren), take the house and near-immediately get to working on the pool. The pool itself has an obvious attraction towards Ray, and when the symptoms of his MS start miraculously retreating it makes sense that they credit his water therapy, but there’s a sense that it’s more than that, and Eve can’t help but think so too. Of course, the children have their own run-ins with off-kilter experiences in the pool (a game of Marco Polo goes astray), and the eventual reveal of who (or what) is haunting it is promising, but it all comes about far too late for us to truly care. At 98 minutes Night Swim has the perfect running time to set its narrative, build its rules, scare enough of its characters, and figure out how to best the entity at its own game. Somehow, it feels double its length as it spends too much time on the drama of the Waller family and under-delivering on its terror potential.
And whilst certain horror films have proven that overt gore and violence don’t equate to quality, Night Swim is unable to muster up much of the alternative – that being atmospheric jump scares – that you almost wish it had splashed on unnecessary blood just to keep us cheaply entertained. Sadly, it drowns across most of the board, resulting in a tepid scarer that doesn’t do justice to its intriguing premise and McGuire’s evident enthusiasm for the genre.
TWO STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Night Swim is now screening in Australian theatres.