Any child who’s stuck a hand into that rectangular opening in a swimming pool that holds the skimmer basket – or has been scared to death by the idea of doing that – understands that a pool can be a frightening place, full of unknowns. No, a pool monster obscured by the darkness is not likely going to bite off your hand at the wrist, but you can’t really be sure, can you? Then there’s the prospects of drowning, hitting your head on the concrete, being strangled by the hose of the cleaning robot, or the cleaning robot itself coming to life and getting you – to say nothing of sunburns. There’s a reason Australian laws on pool gates are so specific and so thorough.
Night Swim figures it might consider all of these risk factors, real or imagined, in one horror film, released at a time of year when genre fare with marginal prospects might have a chance to catch on. M3GAN was a 2023 January release, also from Blumhouse, and that did gangbusters business. If seeking a more direct reminder of that film, maybe Blumhouse should have pushed up its March release of Imaginary, which features a psychotic teddy bear.
The Bryce McGuire-directed, James Wan-produced horror has better on-screen credentials than a film like this might ordinarily boast. Kerry Condon, who plays the wife of a retired baseball player (Wyatt Russell), was a 2023 Oscar nominee for her work in The Banshees of Inisherin. She and Russell work hard to supply Night Swim with some much-needed credibility, but the film moves slowly through a series of inconsistent rules, only rarely finding a stray moment that produces shivers. (And speaking of Wan, an Australian review of this film can’t fail to mention the film’s cheeky inside joke, which is that the high school is named after former PM and drowning victim Harold Holt.)
Ray Waller (Russell) has had to retire from professional ball upon his diagnosis with multiple sclerosis, which occurred six months ago during spring training and wiped out the season he was expecting to have. This creates the chance for some stability for a family that had been required to move around the U.S. every time he was traded from one team to another. In addition to wife Eve, this includes older daughter Izzy (Amelie Hoeferle) and younger son Elliot (Gavin Warren). They’ve looked at a house equipped with all the latest bells and whistles for a person with mobility issues, but Ray gets a better feel from an older house with a big swimming pool in the back yard. He’s always wanted a pool, he says.
It’s probably worth interrupting our regularly scheduled plot synopsis for a little unscheduled cattiness. So this guy has been a professional baseball player with a career long enough to have been traded multiple times, who has teenage children so he’s in at least his early 30s, yet pool ownership had always remained a pipe dream? For a movie that uses the names of real baseball teams and real players, Night Swim has no concept of a professional baseball player’s real salary, where league minimum in 2023 was $720,000 per year. The giddiness this family has over the prospect of owning a pool – at one point Ray also says that they can be known as “the pool family” – is just silly, given what should be an absurd amount of spending power.
The pool has strange powers of regeneration, as Ray starts to show significant improvement in his symptoms and feel stronger than he ever has before. Most of the unexplained things are less positive, as the other family members think they hear a little girl who used to live at that house who went missing, and see rotting shapes grabbing at them from the depths of a body of water that is suddenly a lot more than a few metres to the bottom.
A haunted swimming pool is not the worst idea for a film, but Night Swim makes little of it. For starters, only a few of the “scary” sequences even occur at night, making the title something of a misnomer. Then there’s the fact that as horror movie antagonists go, a pool is a pretty easy one to avoid – just don’t go in. That’s waved off by the fact that Ray might be getting possessed by the pool, Jack Torrance style, so he’s going to keep it prominent among the family’s back yard activities. A lot more of the time, the characters just operate under dumb movie character logic necessitated by a lazy screenplay.
The funny thing is, Night Swim does actually generate some interest in its moments that don’t relate to horror. We get a sense of the cumulative effect on this family of continuing to move house after short periods of time, as the kids have found themselves socially underdeveloped, and Eve seems to have suffered more than she’s benefited from being the wife of a professional athlete. These are actually interesting ideas, the strangeness of living an itinerant lifestyle that results from a single family member’s relentless pursuit of his own dream, and what it might do to that single family member when forced to give up that dream. These are not, however, the ideas that drew a majority of Night Swim’s viewers out to the cinema.
A few creepy moments do prop up the movie from a horror perspective, allowing it to just slide in as passable fare. There’s one particular scene involving the former owner of the home that raises the hairs on your arm like you wanted. Even that results from a very confused set of rules governing this pool entity, which might involve ancient spirits from a natural spring, or might involve just a pool monster in the skimmer basket who wants to bite your hand off.
Night Swim is currently playing in cinemas.