Review: Night Swim
January has become somewhat infamous in the movie release cycle for being the month where studios dump films they don’t know what to do with. It has been humorously lampooned by some YouTube film reviewers (caution: language). It occasionally produces rare gems, but mostly garbage. One may wonder then why anyone would watch a Blumhouse January horror release like Night Swim and hope for anything halfway decent. Unfortunately, Night Swim can’t even manage to be halfway decent.
While one may scoff at the idea of a haunted backyard pool movie, there is a nugget of a decent idea there. Swimming in a pool alone at night can be a peaceful time, but also a creepy experience. It’s an idea that was exploited quite well in a short film director Bryce McGuire and writer Rod Blackhurst created back in 2014. It used the concept for a creepy and effective four minutes, utilizing music and editing and some decent photography for a film that proved quite entertaining. Watch it here. It’s worth your time. Unlike the feature film.
Why is the feature-length version from the same director/writer pair so awful? Well, it’s almost night and day how different the editing of the jump scares and tension is from the feature film to the short. The short’s editing is timed well to build up a sense of dread and unease and then release it in the film’s climax. Conversely, the jump scares in the feature are some of the worst edited and timed I’ve ever seen. They are so plain and predictable that boredom is the only possible reaction.
It’s amazing that the feature-length film uses a sequence that is more or less a copy of the short, but worse in every single way. It uses generic horror score rather than the effective old-timey song from the short. It uses a cheap-looking CGI ghoul rather than an ominous shadowy figure. And the timing of the cut is a lesson in how there is skill to editing a horror film and how poor timing can absolutely neuter a work.
The only positive quality carried over from the short film is the occasionally effective underwater photography. The short made great use of an eerie aqua-green lighting to set a mood, which the feature film unfortunately changes to a cooler, washed-out blue. Still, some of the shots of characters swimming in the depths of the pool and getting disoriented manage to work. Other shots featuring figures in silhouette also cause a mild skitter of nervousness.
These are among the only good aspects of the film. In an effort to make this feature length, an actual story had to be developed. Sadly, it is very lazily done. A nugget of a good idea is in the film’s main character. The lead played by Wyatt Russell is a former MLB star who was forced into retirement by a diagnosis of MS. He greatly desires to get back to his career, causing some subtle tension with his son, who disappoints him for not being the athletic star he wants the boy to be. Soon the pool’s waters start restoring him, creating a Shining-like attachment to the place.
Unfortunately, the extent of the drama stops there. None of the above-described plot lines or character conflicts ever go anywhere meaningful. The film instead fills its screen time with a multitude of the poorly done “scares.” The “Marco Polo” sequence from the trailer is one of the lamest. When Russell’s character gets possessed by the dark power in the waters, his performance becomes absurdly hammy and evaporates whatever limited tension may have existed. The script also writes the characters as total morons in order to justify some of the jump scare scenes, which only adds to the film’s overall issues with generating any sense of tension.
The investigation the lore of the pool is also one of the laziest written and directed sequences in the film. Despite being able to Google in five seconds a whole history of victims of the pool, they somehow never discover this when buying the home, and none of the neighbors seem to be aware of it. At least, they all come over for a pool party and have no issues swimming. The revelation of the pool’s power is perfunctory and results in a movie with no clear logic, given how the wife (Kerry Condon) discovers it. Contrast this with The Ring, which understood how to depict an investigation into something creepy.
Night Swim is an absolute disappointment. Even by January standards, it is incredibly lazy and dull. It’s not the worst January horror film out there, but the little bits it does right make it all the more disappointing. It wastes talented performers like Russell and Condon, resulting in mediocre to bad performances. The film drowns in subpar efforts and may sink the careers of its directing and writing pair. There, I made a pool pun. Hope you’re happy. Happier than I was watching this muddied puddle of a work. Really, I knew this film was doomed when a pool technician started waxing poetically about humanity’s connection to water, the mostly overly-serious monologue I’ve heard in a horror film in a long time. It felt like college screenwriting, which may be what it was.