Blumhouse’s ‘Night Swim’ Quickly Sinks Into Familiar Jump Scares
You know it is the new year when Blumhouse kicks it off with another schlockfest. It can go either of two ways with this studio. Either the audience is in for a guilty pleasure or left scratching their heads. “Night Swim” starts off as the former and then dives deep into the latter. The premise seems fit for a short film, which is exactly how it began. This is director Bryce McGuire’s latest feature after writing and directing multiple shorts, including a 2014 mini chiller of the same name, which you can watch on YouTube. What’s on display is mostly proof that McGuire certainly has the makings of a strong genre director, creating some good jump scares despite the plot going all over the place.
A quick prologue set in 1992 lets us know the villain here is a pool, when a young girl dives in and disappears to the horror of her suburban parents. Years later and a new family moves into the house. They are Ray (Wyatt Russell), a pro baseball player diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his wife Eve (Kerry Condon) and kids Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and Elliot (Gavin Warren). While cleaning up the pool, dark sludge emerges and the family is told they’re actually quite lucky. The pool is fed by a natural underwater well system that also feeds local, thermal lakes famous for their therapeutic value. It might be just what Ray needs and indeed, soon his symptoms start nearly disappearing. But you know strange things soon start to happen. Izzy invites a crush over for a pool game of Marco Polo where horrific apparitions pop up and Elliot has his own brush with something terrible when a toy floats in the wrong direction.
Horror is such a fun genre because anything can be turned into a scare device. A pool for a villain makes perfect sense with its dark depths and the threat of drowning. When McGuire really plays with the premise it works best. He brings back some oldies but goodies like bloated dead corpses grabbing at a victim in the water. A scene where Elliot encounters an entity in one of the pool’s vents has a tinge of “It.” Yet, the rest of the movie as a whole just feels so silly. This would be fine if the movie had more self-awareness and carried on with a B-flick spirit like past fun Blumhouse movies in the style of “Upgrade” or “M3gan.” But with James Wan (“The Conjuring” and “Saw”) plastered on the poster as producer, McGuire keeps the tone somber even as the dialogue verges on the ridiculous. You’re not laughing with the movie, but at it when someone turns to the camera and says, “Let’s have a pool party!”
There is also a quirky clash between cliché scares and more stylish gestures. We know what’s going to happen to the house pet that gets too close to the pool then later, we get a more effective image of spirits floating in mass in the darkest depths of the realm existing deep in the water. There are promising story angles in the screenplay about Elliot feeling inferior to his famous dad, but it goes nowhere. Another moment that inspires a chortle has Eve do one of those five-second discoveries where in a rush we hear some of the pool’s nefarious back history, with quick flashes of photos going back to 1936. Instead of having real fun with that idea, the script never does anything with it. We can assume it’s because Blumhouse is prepping a sequel or prequel or both, but “Night Swim” needs more juice.
The charm of the 2014 short is that it’s just a quick, spooky premise based on a natural fear of something familiar becoming a trap. You’re pretty vulnerable inside a swimming pool if you think about it. “Night Swim” tries to stretch itself into a whole mythology involving wishing wells and specters demanding a sacrifice so Ray can feel better. But it stays so hazy. By the time someone inevitably gets possessed and wanders around the house, splashing water and oozing dark liquid, it’s a case of been there, done that. Wyatt Russell and Kerry Condon are a good enough pair to perform it all with straight faces. Russell, in particular, never looks as tough as dad Kurt, so he has the perfect vulnerability. The better moments are quiet, eerie shots of someone swimming across the pool, hinting a menace hiding in the shadows. But once the plot dries up, “Night Swim” is left gasping for air.
“Night Swim” releases Jan. 5 in theaters nationwide.