There’s something in the water. If this was 1975, it might be a great white shark courtesy of Steven Spielberg, but in the case of Night Swim, it’s a seemingly mild suburban swimming pool that happens to have a dark and nefarious past.
Night Swim is the latest collaboration between the recently-merged Blumhouse with James Wan’s Atomic Monster, both production labels having been fairly focused on horror over the past decade plus, their collaboration having begun with Wan and Leigh Whannell’s Insidious movies, leading to a number of highly profitable hits.
Night Swim goes about as high-concept as you can get, and like other high concept horror films – Lights Out and Mama come to mind – this was originally based on a short film by filmmaker Bryce McGuire with Rod Blackhurst. That was merely a woman swimming in a pool at night before being pulled down into the water. Similar to that short (and a bit like the opening of Jaws for that matter), the film begins with a prologue in which someone goes swimming and something happens to them. We then meet Wyatt Russell’s Ray Waller, a minor league baseball player on the rise, who has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. He and his wife Eve (Kerry Condon) have moved into a new home with their two kids, and though the swimming pool is dilapidated and full of leaves, they put the work into turning it back into a usable backyard pool. Ray soon learns that swimming can be therapeutic to help with the complications of MS, but the positive effects are counterbalanced with a number of horrific experiences for his entire family.
McGuire is a decent filmmaker whose smartest move was putting together a strong, cohesive family unit at the film’s core, which allows Night Swim to offer some of the qualities of classics like Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror. The casting of Russell and Condon is great, but so are the two younger actors playing their kids (Amélie Hoeferle and Gavin Warren). They have a convincing enough bond with Russell’s portrayal of Ray’s disease adding a particularly compelling and unique take on the usual patriarch for this type of movie. It gives Ray an actual reason to want to continue using the pool, even as his family start making him aware that there’s something darker involved with his improving condition. Condon, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for The Banshees of Inisherin, gives the film’s more dramatic moments far more weight, even though most viewers will probably prefer the scary moments instead.
What’s interesting is that, despite the title, the horror elements are not just relegated to the nighttime, as is often the case with films in this vein. There are actually a number of quite tense and scary moments during the bright daylight, as well, which just makes the viewer more intrigued about what is transpiring.
The best thing McGuire has going on the crafts side of things is the impressive underwater camerawork and the sound work that keeps the ever-present splashing of water subtle but ever-present, and actually quite menacing. The make-up effects and visual effects are not always up to par, but combined with the sound effects, it insures that the scares are quite effective.
Universal, Blumhouse, and Atomic Monster are now a proven commodity when it comes to horror, well aware that having such a simple and easy-to-market premise with bonafide scares can help deliver a strong horror hit. Maybe this one won’t do as well as last year’s M3GAN, but it should get younger moviegoers interested enough as a Friday night activity now that school’s back in session.
All that aside, it’s harder to buy the explanation for what is going on with the pool, and the third act suffers for it, although anyone who wants a fairly quick, breezy film full of genuine scares, Night Swim does a fine job offering just that.
Awards Potential: None
Box Office Potential: This should be good for $50 to 60 million or more domestic.
Renewability: If the movie does well, there are many options to explore for a prequel, most likely with a different cast.
Overall Score: B
Night Swim opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, Jan. 5, with previews tonight.
You can read my interview with filmmaker Bryce McGuire and star Wyatt Russell, as well.
Cast: Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, Amélie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren, Eddie Martinez, Ben Sinclair
Director: Bryce McGuire
Screenwriter: Bryce McGuire, Rod Blackhurst
Producers: Jason Blum, James Wan, Ryan Turek
DP: Charlie Sarroff
Production Design: Hillary Gurtler
Costume Design: Christie Wittenborn
Editor: Jeff McEvoy
Score by: Mark Korven