Forty-nine years ago, Universal Studios unleashed Jaws on the world, making everyone afraid to go into the ocean. This week, the studio joined Blumhouse Productions and Atomic Monster to put out Night Swim, a movie that wants to make you afraid to swim in your backyard pool.
Is Night Swim the result of a trio of studios trying to release something cheap to grab some quick cash to start the year? Did the bigwigs who green-light such things think Night Swim was a good story that needed to be told? Did someone lose a bet?
It’s all academic, of course, but it’s also hard not to keep your mind from wandering to such topics as you stare at the screen, watching the movie float by like that Baby Ruth bar in the pool scene from Caddyshack.
Directed by Bryce McGuire, Night Swim is the story of the Waller family and their struggle to stay bonded through difficult times after dad, Ray (Wyatt Russel), a professional baseball player, is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In one of the most unconvincing scenes in the movie, Ray tells his wife, Eve (Kerry Condon), that although his dreams of playing professional sports may be over, it’s a blessing because he gets to spend more time with her and the kids.
So they buy a house with a pool. Suddenly, their lives start getting better, to the point where Dad’s debilitating disease starts to not only go into remission but disappears altogether. Sure, some strange things are happening, and there are plenty of clumsily edited jump scares to remind us the pool is evil, but if it means Dad gets to play baseball again, then nothing else matters, especially to Dad. And the pool.
Although he does his best to keep Night Swim visually interesting, even if it means ‘borrowing’ from other, better, horror movies (like the way the deep dive in the Night Swim pool mirrors the deep dive Daniel Kaluuya takes in Jordan Peele’s Get Out), McGuire, who co-wrote the screenplay with Rod Blackhurst, is clueless when it comes to effectively revealing the secrets behind the haunted swimming pool. Why is the pool cleaner giving a detailed explanation about how the pool is springfed and not just filled with water from the garden hose like every other pool? Why is the woman who sold the house to the Wallers, and illegally kept its murderous history from them when she showed the house, suddenly full of details to share about the dozens of people who died in the pool over the decades? Thank goodness the creepy old lady is there to explain how swimming in the pool is the same as making a deal with Lucifer, or else how would we connect the dots between Dad getting better and the kids starting to look so sacrificial?
It’s all tell, no show.
Dumb as it is, and it is pretty dumb, Night Swim could have been at least dumb fun if McGuire had given his film just a bit of humor to lighten it up. Comedy can be such an integral part of a good horror movie. The jump scare when the shark breaches to eat the chum in Jaws is very effective, but it’s made memorable because of what Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) says when he stumbles back into the cabin. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” can be found printed on t-shirts around the world; audiences will be challenged to remember a single line from Night Swim the day after watching the movie.
Still, there is one bright spot that keeps Night Swim from being a total washout, and that is the performance of the always enjoyable Kerry Condon (The Banshees of Inisherin) as Eve, the alpha female of the Waller clan. Whether she is playing with the kids, doing home repairs, or being the backbone of the family until her husband grows one, Eve is more compelling to watch than anyone – or anything– else on the screen. Watching her dive deep to solve the mystery of the pool and save her family is the only redeeming factor in a movie that never moves out of the shallow end.