At this point, January has been known as a dumping ground for bad films. Last year, Blumhouse cut that tradition with M3GAN, and now it’s attempting it again with another film, Night Swim. The film is based on the acclaimed 2014 YouTube short film by Rod Blackhurst and Bryce McGuire. McGuire also serves as the film’s director and screenplay writer—with Atomic Monster’s James Wan and Blumhouse’s Jason Blum serving as producers.
It stars Wyatt Russell as Ray Waller, a former major league baseball player forced into early retirement by a degenerative illness. He moves into a new home with his wife Eve (Kerry Condon), teenage daughter Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle), and young son Elliot (Gavin Warren). It isn’t long before the family finds that there is something in the water.
Choosing a new house began by looking for something that would fit Ray’s growing disability. But when Ray becomes infatuated with a pool, the Waller family is ready to settle down. The pool will both be fun for the kids and give Ray at-home physical therapy. But Ray enters the pool with more than just a hope to start a new life after his baseball career. He wants to fight against his diagnosed future and find a way back to the field.
The pool becomes the central focus of the family’s life in their new home. It’s a place where they dive for coins, have a party, and just regain their sense of connection. But it doesn’t take long for the dark secret to begin to bubble to the surface. The home’s past threatens to unleash a malevolent force that will drag the family under.
The truth is that Night Swim wears its inspirations on its sleeves. The movie is a little bit of Amityville, a lot of IT, and even some of the Conjuring films. Ultimately, it has just about all the “family moves into a haunted new house” tropes you can think of. But none of that makes it bad or iterative. Instead, the cast of the film’s narrative structure builds suspense and scares effectively. The film isn’t perfect by any means or an immediate cult hit like its January 2023 predecessor, but it is a spooky night at the movies. In fact, it even has just enough humor to drive it home.
The latter of this is thanks to Wyatt Russell’s third-act performance that captures a menacing possessed villain with dad humor in a pretty stellar way. Truly, Russell is a standout throughout all of Night Swim. Come to the film to discover the scary reason not to swim at night and stay for Russell’s comedic and yet intimidating performance. As a whole, Night Swim’s story revolves around him. As a father who was also an athlete, Ray’s refusal to let go of his all-star past is the crux of the film’s conflict. He is the main character, and it’s fantastic to see him in theater horror again. With his constant home run performances in genre films and series, Night Swim makes sure everyone knows that he’s more than just John Walker in a Disney series.
Even before the haunted pool, Ray resented a future where he couldn’t play ball. His family is happy to finally have their patriarch at home and a future in one place instead of moving with every team trade. But Ray is still thinking of the past. Choose your sport or your family. Your dream and your career or your children.
Diagnosed with MS, Ray refuses to accept it, even going so far as to tell his concerned wife Eve that he wouldn’t have left baseball if he was healthy. While Night Swim initially seems to broach the subject of accepting life after becoming disabled, it never truly goes in. In fact, Ray’s final choice sours what could have been a powerful theme for the genre to engage.
Night Swim uses the rest of its cast well. Eve, Elliot, and Izzy each engage with the eerie pool differently. They unlock a new piece to the mystery with each dip, getting closer to the sinister “thing” in the drain. While we see some of the pool’s impact through Ray, we only see what it offers him, not truly what it takes. The horror that comes between flashing pool lights after dark is something contained to the rest of the family, and it pays off.
Director Bryce McGuire captures the uneasiness of the deep end by using camera tricks that mimic what you see as you look to the side and as you come up for air with water displacement clouding your vision. The person in the pool isn’t absolutely sure what they’re seeing, and neither is the audience. This allows every frame to build on the next in an intriguing way. You have to question if the shadowy figure is family or foe. Is it a creature, an entity, or a joke?
This is widely used to build an atmosphere for jump scares in the film. But hey, jump scares aren’t all bad, and good ones can go a long way. The diversity of the ghouls in the pool also ensures that not every scary shot is the same. Instead, each has a unique visual identity that makes them all intriguing. However, this also makes them all feel slightly disjointed at times as well. Their aesthetics in individual moments don’t always come together as cohesively as they do when together.
Ultimately, though, Night Swim is a good showing for theater horror in 2024, and that’s thanks to Wyatt Russell. It may not keep you out of the pool at night indefinitely, but it will test your anxiety around water for 90 minutes.
Night Swim is playing in theaters nationwide January 5, 2024.
Night Swim is a good showing for theater horror in 2024, and that’s thanks to Wyatt Russell. It may not keep you out of the pool at night indefinitely, but it will test your anxiety around water for 90 minutes.