‘Night Swim’ Review: Watered Down Horror

The latest from Blumhouse is an earnest horror movie with the premise “What if your pool was evil?” There are some scares, but mostly it just wades in the waters of “whatever.”

Gavin Warren in Night Swim. Universal Pictures

January is an infamous Hollywood dumping ground for movies the studios don’t expect to draw big money or awards attention. Horror, however, is always in season, and the past few years have been kicked off by exceptional high-concept popcorn thrillers. The first must-see flick of 2023 was the delicious horror-comedy M3GAN, which opened in January, and though my expectations weren’t high I hoped to be similarly surprised yet again by this year’s January offering from Blumhouse and writer-director Bryce McGuire, Night Swim. If nothing else, there might be some giggles in an earnest horror movie with the premise “What if your pool was evil?” No such luck, I’m afraid. While diverting enough for its forgiving 98-minute runtime, Night Swim neither sinks nor floats. It just wades in the waters of “whatever.”

NIGHT SWIM (1/4 stars)
Directed by: Bryce McGuire
Written by: Bryce McGuire
Starring: Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, Amélie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren
Running time: 98 mins.

Night Swim sports two game leads — Wyatt Russell, lately of Monarch: Legacy of Monsters and Oscar nominee Kerry Condon — as parents who move with their two children into a quiet suburban home in search of a fresh start. Roy Waller (Russell) is a Major League Baseball player coping with Multiple Sclerosis, which has likely ended his career but returned him to his family. School administrator and grown-up Navy brat Eve (Condon) is working to create a new sense of safety and normalcy under unfavorable circumstances. Before long, however, days of family fun by their new in-ground pool take a fearful turn. While floating alone in the water, each member of the Waller clan is visited by strange visions — some threatening, some enticing.

The shape of the story is typical for a post-“elevation” horror film, juggling a common visceral, physical fear and a more cerebral metaphysical one. The most surface-level (no pun intended) thrills are played by the numbers, but they leave little to complain about. McGuire effectively captures the eerie isolation of being alone in a contained body of water, and the fear of drowning (or worse, someone you love drowning) in your own backyard. Despite much of the physical jeopardy taking place in the same ordinary concrete bowl, the action isn’t boring, and the familiarity of the setting works to the film’s advantage. Many viewers can surely relate to seeing strange distortions while looking up through the surface of clear water, or to that brief moment of panic when your toes can’t find the bottom of the pool. It’s all evocative, if not exceptional.

Amélie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren, Wyatt Russell, and Kerry Condon in Night Swim. Anne Marie Fox/Universal Pictures

As with a lot of supernatural horror, however, the spooky phenomena get less scary the more they’re shown or explained. Night Swim’s watery antagonists — and their methods and motives — are better left to the imagination. From the midpoint on, McGuire shows us just a bit too much, and exposits away most of the mystery. Horror fans usually scoff at a PG-13 rating, but it’s not a lack of gore, sex, or swearing that hurts Night Swim (none is needed here), but a lowered expectation of literacy. It’s still a cut above when teen-targeted horror movies weren’t expected to engage your mammalian brain at all, but it doesn’t measure up against the modern horror movies it’s more naturally compared to, most of which have an R rating and an adult audience. 

To McGuire’s credit, the internal conflicts of the characters that are stirred up by the hydrated haunting are all thought out and well-realized, including those of the two Waller children. Teenage Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) is multifaceted in a very adolescent way, breaking rules and testing boundaries out of self-interest while also protective of her family during a trying time. Younger brother Elliott (Gavin Warren) is an anxious kid who lacks his father and sister’s athletic talent and hasn’t figured out where he fits in his own home, let alone his new neighborhood. Ballplayer Roy is coping with a medical condition that threatens his very identity and has him teetering on the edge of a Jack Torrence-style breakdown. At first, it appears that Kerry Condon’s Eve gets the short shrift, but the character comes to life during the third act and even offers Condon one scene — a poignant conversation with her daughter about becoming a parent — that’s worthy of her talents.

Still, the character threads and horror elements never speak to each other enough to become greater than their parts. Indeed, the earnestness of the personal story feels (forgive me) watered down by the unremarkable horror movie in which it serves. Against my own, genre-friendly tendencies, I almost wish Night Swim had been a straight-up drama about an athlete and his family figuring themselves out following a difficult medical diagnosis. Perhaps this feeling is a holdover (hah! I punned again!) from having spent the past two months enjoying awards-seeking prestige dramas, but Night Swim is an underwhelming start to our year in cinema. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for a reason to dive in.

Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.

‘Night Swim’ Review: Watered Down Horror