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Night Swim (15)

Director: Bryce McGuire
Screenplay: Bryce McGuire, Rod Blackhurst

Starring: Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, Amelie Hoeferle

Review: David Stephens

Swimming pools are scary. We can all appreciate that. From being young kids who are afraid of drowning and monsters to being grown adults who are … well, still unaccountably scared of “something” grabbing their foot or taking a chunk out of our body, even when it is 100% impossible. Admit it, we all still hear the John Williams “Jaws” theme kick in when we’re in the deep end, especially if we’re alone in a big-ass pool. With that in mind Night Swim (we’ll address that title later) is another feature-length horror based on a viral short film that got embiggened on YouTube. From nine years ago, the three-minute mini-movie of the same name was directed by Rod Blackhurst and Bryce McGuire. A pure mood piece, it shows a young woman (Megalyn Echikunwoke) in a swimming pool being stalked by a figure during the hours of darkness, resulting in an ambiguous and supernatural ending. As you can probably surmise by the runtime, nothing much more to the narrative than that. However, in 2018, the premise of a feature-length adaptation of this was sold to James Wan's Atomic Monster. And here we are some six years later, with the finished film as a Blumhouse production, having been directed by McGuire. So has it been worth the wait? Err…


It starts in 1992 with a bunny-slipper-clad young girl trying (somewhat bizarrely) to rescue a toy boat from the family swimming pool in the middle of the night. Something pulls her in and the girl is presumed doomed. Flash forward to the present day and we meet the Waller family. Patriarch Ray (Wyatt Russell) used to be a big-shot in baseball (get used to hearing a LOT about that) but had to retire after developing MS (or something, the plot’s a bit vague in this area). Anyway, Mother Eve (Kerry Condon) and the two kids (Amélie Hoeferle as Izzy and Gavin Warren as Elliot) are supporting Ray and looking for a fresh start in a new house that can meet their needs. They set their sights on the abode that was featured in the opening sequence, complete with the (now-derelict) swimming pool. Turns out that it’s actually sited over a geothermal spring and is basically self-sustaining once they renovate it. Things go great at first, Ray seems to thrive after using the pool for hydrotherapy and the family loves it. What could go wrong? Quite a bit, as the kids are scared by strange occurrences, Eve finds out about its dark history, and Ray starts to behave oddly.


The main problem here is that the attempt to lengthen a three-minute-scare sequence into a 98-minute movie has resulted in a messy mixture of The Amityville Horror and Cocoon, as unlikely as that sounds. Throw in some shots ripped off from Jaws, Get Out, and other horrors, and you’ve got Night Swim. Whilst we’ve got the title in the frame, isn’t that the most uninspiring name for a film? PG-horror it may be, but that’s not going to draw in inquisitive punters, is it? Anyway, it’s a perfect description of the short, but 30% of the “swims” in the movie are in broad daylight. So… not accurate and a bit lame. Aside from that, yeah, it’s not great. As a measure of the scariness of the film, by far the most disturbing scene in all of it involves tension surrounding spilt water and broken glass. With the audience we saw it with, this visceral moment was the only point where they reacted with a genuine jump and an “ooh”. That’s because of the sheer simplicity of it and the empathy it induces. Sadly, moments like this are few and far between. Most of the horror aspects range from predictable to goofy (except for some minor elements which we’ll refer to soon … in a non-spoiler fashion)


If you’ve seen the trailer (and the short film), you might assume that the narrative is just a series of sequences with people swimming in the pool at night and seeing weirdness. And to be fair, there is a fair amount of that. You’ll lose count of the number of times that characters see murky figures in their peripheral vision because they’re either underwater or the figures are. Likewise, the amount of times that people overreach to try and grab something in the pool probably gets to double figures. So far, so predictable, but there’s also a lot of filler that gets a bit tiresome and reduces the impact that genre aspects have when the (slightly daffy) second half kicks in. Ray bangs on insufferably about his glory days as a baseball player and the aspects of this get slightly dull and boring, especially if you have the same opinion about the sport itself. It becomes a focal point for his apparent recovery and also a slightly disturbing sub-plot which awkwardly explores his lack of connection with his son, because he doesn’t excel at sport. This negative look at machismo and sacrifice in US sport is arguably intriguing, but it feels contrived to bring events to a head at the conclusion


That’s pretty much the most frustrating thing about the film. It all feels a little half-formed and barely focused. The source of the “problems” has a sort of mythology around it that’s semi-constructed. If it had been realised to a greater extent, the potential for some Lovecraftian chills or Earth-based deities could have been explored. There’s even a playful hint that this could be the basis for the legends of Wishing Wells, which is kind of cool in its wackiness. However, this only comes about because of the old chestnut of a character doing some amateur sleuthing and visiting past occupants of the haunted property to understand what’s going on. This does actually lead to quite a mean-spirited twist, but again that is barely explored, and we get the repeated genre trope of people retching up “bad stuff” in an attempt to provide a PG-rated “shock” rather than a coherent narrative.


This probably wouldn’t matter so much if anything felt fresh and original in any way, with some respectable jump-scares and heightened tension. Instead, you’ll find yourself muttering (internally hopefully) “Hey, I’ve seen this somewhere before…” at certain scenes. Perhaps inevitably there are underwater shots of bathers that mimic Jaws, but there’s also a moment where Eve reacts to a playful scream in the pool that rips off an infamous moment in the same sharky production. Not only that but there’s a night-time escape that copies the Lutz family’s actions in The Amityville Horror (which is also mirrored in Ray’s increasingly bad behaviour), a reach into a pool drain that is virtually identical to poor old Georgie’s meeting with Pennywise in IT, and a sink into darkness which copies the transition into the Sunken Place from Get Out. Even the aquatic “accidents” (with glasses falling and pool covers winding into place) feel like outtakes from a Final Destination entry. It’s far too familiar,  to be honest.


And yet with all of this, if you are in a simple mood for some basic horror, Night Swim might provide you with what you need in an undemanding sense. Condon is better than she needs to be and provides the emotional anchor that’s needed. The barely glimpsed watery ghouls are quite effective, especially as they are used sparingly and only at pivotal moments. And despite its reliance on the Sunken Place, there’s some really nice imagery at the end to represent an aquatic place of damnation, with a clever play on perspective. It’s just a shame that these positive elements are “drowned” out (hah!) by all the negative ones. The simplicity of the original short film has given way to a floundering collection of ideas that flops about in the shallow end of the genre. Unless you’re in a forgiving mood, don’t expect to be holding your breath at any point.  

If you had low expectations for this minor Blumhouse offering, then you’re right. It tries too hard to build something out of the basic set-up and ends up forgetting the scares. Some haunting imagery in later scenes doesn’t counteract the many tropes and where-have-I-seen-that-shot-before? feeling that you’ll get. Very early days, but we’re still waiting for 2024’s first scary film. This ain’t it.
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