You’ve heard of the beach that makes you old, but what about the pool that bores you to tears? Part “Old,” part “Lady of the Lake,” and weirdly just the baseball bits of “Signs,” this sluggish supernatural release from Blumhouse and Atomic Monster (the studios’ first new title following their recent merger) feels like the latest disasterpiece from a latter-day M. Night Shyamalan — but it’s not. That’s bad news for writer/director Bryce McGuire, who has neither the genre bonafides nor the creative depravity required to justify making his debut feature an accidental horror comedy about a haunted swimming pool and the idiot suburbanites who maintain it so, so slowly. 

Expanding on his 2014 short film of the same name, which was co-directed with Rod Blackhurst, McGuire burns through nearly all of his good ideas for an extended “Night Swim” before the title card even pops. In the original three-minute version, a single actress (Megalyn Echikunwoke) swims around a simple suburban pool in the dark. She’s soon plagued by a sense that someone — or something — is watching her from both inside and outside of the illuminated abyss. The lights flicker underwater. She’s frightened. Something grabs her and takes hold. The swimmer struggles as she’s dragged into suddenly endless depths. When the light returns, she’s gone and so is whatever took her.

Swap out a little girl (Ayazhan Dalabayeva) for the adult woman, toss in some nondescript ’90s flashback details to set up your time-jump (and a lot of clumsy exposition in the fourth act, fair warning), and you’ve got the “Night Swim” prologue. You’ve also got the beginnings of the scene formula that will rinse and repeat for most of the hour and 38 minutes to come.

It’s simple and effective as a short, making no attempt to explain the pool’s insidious mystery. But as a water-logged “Conjuring” redux developed at half the pace and with none of the fear factor, McGuire’s ghost story about a contemporary family of four suffers from not only a lack of tension and nonsensical puzzle logic, but a barely-there emotional center that gets more laughable as the stakes progress.

NIGHT SWIM, from left: Amelie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren, Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, 2024.  ph: Anne Marie Fox/ © Universal Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
“Night Swim”©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

In a spurt of art imitating life (the most heady “Night Swim” gets, rest assured), former* professional hockey player Wyatt Russell stars as Ray Waller: a retired athlete whose time as a Major League baseball player is cut short by an early multiple sclerosis diagnosis. (*Russell suffered a series of career-ending injuries before taking up acting as a full-time career.) 

Ray’s wife Eve (Kerry Condon, with a decent American accent but the same Irish steeliness) is eager to put down roots for her ailing husband and stressed-out kids (Amélie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren). So when the possibility of a house with a backyard pool — perfect for Ray’s physical therapy exercises! — bubbles up in their real estate search, the couple is quick to pounce on an otherwise unremarkable property. 

Watching unsuspecting horror victims get settled in their haunted new homes is surely a beloved scary movie pastime by now. But a misguided attempt to build slowburn suspense leaves “Night Swim” feeling lethargic in its pacing, and a lack of visual interest makes treading that narrative water feel even slower. A smiley face drawn on a quarter in black Sharpie is quite possibly the most distinctive piece of iconography from the entire film, and that’s counting the pièce de résistance pool and every last chlorine-colored thing to come out of it. 

As a matter of casting, Russell and Condon have all the chemsitry of a wet mop. Hysterically serious conversations about pool maintenance and the Love of Baseball leave the pair suspended in awkward speech for most their interactions — but even kissing in swimsuits, they look like they want their agents. Talents each, the actors commit to every line and opportunity but Russsell in particular overeggs it. Meanwhile, Hoeferle is relegated to a boilerplate teen girl romance (opposite the decidedly charming Elijah Roberts) and ill-fated swim team association. And Warren exists primarily as fodder for an “It” sewer scene redux involving a water filter and, yes, a little toy boat; sadly, it’s less than fun than it sounds.

NIGHT SWIM, Gavin Warren, 2024. © Universal Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
“Night Swim”©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Not unlike the Griswolds of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” pre-holiday lesson (weird that this movie is coming out in January, right?), the Wallers appear primarily bonded by the promise of a backyard pool. You can breathe a sigh of relief when the hilarious Ben Sinclair, known best for HBO’s “High Maintenance,” appears as an eccentric Pool Tech, waxing poetic about recreational water safety and bringing some life back to the screen when explaining away seemingly septic sludge growing at the bottom of the pool. You can go right back to holding your breath when he leaves — the strange dude’s charisma never to grace the tepid “Night Swim” again. 

Without believable characters to root for or interesting design choices to distract from the lacking heart, “Night Swim” could have found its saving grace in an engaging, tightly constructed puzzle box nightmare. Unfortunately, McGuire muddies his brilliant concept with contradicting rules, unclear symbolism, and the sincerely outrageous decision to allow a huge portion of his movie’s best moments to take place during THE DAY. In the suffocating shadow of “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” one could theoretically argue that “Night Swim” would have been better with the kids as the main protagonists. In an aged-down “Black Phone” situation, maybe the inane inconsistencies and skull-shattering shallowness wouldn’t hit as hard.

NIGHT SWIM, Wyatt Russell, 2024. © Universal Pictures /Courtesy Everett Collection
“Night Swim”©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

That said, there is absolutely an audience for this: one that will delight in watching Condon full-on battle a pool cover and cackle hearing Russell say, with his whole chest, “That pool is the best thing…THAT EVER HAPPENED TO ME.” It’s fun to talk over and pick apart, but ultimately this feature from a promising decade-old short is little more than a sloppy throwaway horror released in the off-season. The irrational fear that every pool-goer gets at least once in their life — that a shark, alligator, or otherwise aquatic nightmare has invaded their concrete oasis — is scary; it’s just not scary in “Night Swim.” Maybe try “Frozen” instead? At least ski lifts are operational this time of year.

Grade: C-

An Atomic Monster and Blumhouse production distributed by Universal Pictures, “Night Swim” hits theaters Friday, January 5.

Leave a comment