‘Night Swim’ Review: Wading in the Shallows

Peter Paras reviews Night Swim, a January studio horror release with a goofy but neat premise that still underwhelms.
User Rating: 4

January often serves as a dumping ground for low-grade studio efforts. Last year’s M3GAN bucked that trend financially and critically with a big assist from social media. Sadly, Blumhouse’s latest attempt at an early-year win just isn’t the same sans a dancing robot. Produced by James Wan, Night Swim is more akin to the grade-Z flicks Ed Wood hoped to make: little in the way of creativity but an effective poster nonetheless (See below.) As far as pitches for low-budget horror, “Haunted Swimming Pool” is perfectly suitable. Yet first-time feature director Bryce McGuire (based on his short) has delivered a film less interested in making a splash than wading in the shallow end of said haunted swimming pool. Though the cast, including Wyatt Russell (Monarch: Legacy of Monsters) and Kerry Condon (The Banshees of Inisherin), are game, Night Swim quickly sinks to the bottom with little to no genuine scares.

When former MLB player Ray (Russell) is suddenly afflicted with multiple sclerosis, a search for a new home jumps to the top of his priorities. Ray and his spouse, Eve (Condon), somewhat randomly find a “fixer-upper” shortly after being unimpressed with their realtor’s latest find. Oh, look, there’s a below-ground swimming pool… surely, their two teens would appreciate that, right? Think of all the pool parties hosted to get to know the new neighbors. The only cost besides the mortgage is a possible body count—naturally, the couple signs on the dotted line.

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I say “possible body count” as, alas, those seeking the bare minimum in terms of PG-13 thrills will no doubt be annoyed by the halfway point when the kills are in short supply. Apparently, it’s a lot harder to drown victims in this pool despite a toy boat that temps children the way Pennywise did with Georgie’s paper floatie in IT. There’s also little to no gore despite some injuries, which include a bloody hand. Obviously, neither blood nor murder is a must for a good scary time, but there’s not much “there there,” as the old poets would say.

Like David F. Sandberg’s Lights Out or, more recently, last year’s Smile by Parker Finn, director McGuire has bloated his five-minute short of the same name into a feature. Understandably, there might not be enough material to stretch out to 98 minutes, but despite the varying qualities of Smile or Lights Out, both films allowed their respective filmmakers to highlight their talents for tension, shot compositions, etc. I struggle to think of a single moment or even framing in Night Swim that feels wholly unique. The big underwater moments will be familiar to anyone who’s visited the Upside Down in Netflix’s Stranger Things. I didn’t love Smile, but after the credits rolled, I thought, “Okay, I wanna see what Finn does next.” I honestly don’t know what McGuire offers as a new director-to-watch. But he’s good with his actors, so that’s a plus, I suppose.

As Ray, Russell seems to be channeling Ryan Reynolds circa 2005’s The Amityville Horror. Did we need another troubled dad who gets possessed and goes psycho? Nope. Russell delivers the transition from an absent-minded father to a dad willing to destroy his family for a shot at former glory well enough. He’s more effective (as is the film as a whole) being inappropriately funny here and there. Balancing such an outrageous situation relies a lot on the actors. As teen daughter Izzy, Amélie Hoeferle gets that the script (by McGuire and Rod Blackhurst) is pretty dumb. Naturally, she’s the film’s best part and gets the big Marco Polo moment seen in the trailers. She, alongside Gavin Warren as little bro Eliot, treat the outlandish spooky moments as well as they would in an above-average Final Destination movie. I mean that as a compliment. There’s only so much seriousness these kinds of stories can be. Now and then, we’re treated to the creepily grounded Talk to Me, but that is rare.

Sifting through the themes of Night Swim doesn’t fare any better. I suppose it’s as if Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant The Zone of Interest was a half-baked family drama. Is Ray a stand-in for Americans’ need to have a great life even at the expense of their offspring? Sure. As the first major studio release of 2024, Blumhouse is best to just take the L, as they can’t all be strong swimmers. Still, check out the effective poster.

Night Swim opens in theaters on January 5, 2024.

Written by
Peter Paras is pop culture writer who has been reviewing films for the past fifteen years. Raised in Chicago—but an Angeleno since the start of 21st century—he has plenty to say about films, television, videogames, and the occasional YouTube channel. He’s a frequent guest on Out Now with Aaron and Abe, as well as TV Campfire Podcast. His work has been published at Why So Blu, Game Revolution and E! Online. His favorites include: Sunset Blvd, Step Up 2 The Streets, Hackers, Paris Is Burning, both installments of The Last of Us, Destiny 2, and Frasier.

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