Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, it’s “Night Swim,” your annual January horror movie from the folks at Blumhouse.
“Night Swim” occupies the same spot on the calendar that “M3GAN” held a year ago. And while nothing could ever possibly reach that film’s gonzo heights or cultural significance, everyone seems fully aware of the supremely silly premise they’ve signed up for here. It’s about a pool … that eats people. Producers Jason Blum and James Wan, both horror titans, once again show they know how to freak audiences out while maintaining a sly sense of humor. We’ve seen inanimate objects get anthropomorphized for thrills and chills before in the form of “Rubber” (about a homicidal tire) and “In Fabric” (about a homicidal dress). But a pool just seems so relaxing, so luxurious, that the idea of it turning on the very people who seek its soothing embrace provides an inspired twist.
The fact that the pool in question is so aggressively bland is also a nice touch. This is not some mid-century, kidney-shaped oasis. Nor is it a modern-day monstrosity with built-in slides, a swim-up bar and a grotto. This is a concrete, rectangular hole in the ground, the kind of pool you probably spent long, summer days playing Marco Polo in if you grew up in Southern California in the 1970s.
Writer-director Bryce McGuire toys with the notion of an ancient and insatiable evil lurking below the surface of banal suburbia in expanding the short he made with Rod Blackhurst into his debut feature. That’s not a novel idea; it’s the stuff of Stephen King and David Lynch. But McGuire establishes enough tension off the top and makes effective use of sound design and camera angles to create a lingering, unsettling mood.
A flashback to 1992 reveals a pigtailed, tween girl getting gobbled up by the pool when she reaches out at night to retrieve an elusive toy boat. Cut to the present day, as a family is about to move into that same house with a pool that’s crumbling from decades of neglect. Early on, McGuire makes some striking choices with upside-down shots and reflections, including the bright image of clouds and blue sky shining on the leaf-strewn pool cover. This place may seem inviting, he seems to be saying, but it’s unreliable. The steady gurgling and belching of the filter provide an unsettling rhythm, and the groan of the diving board suggests further dangers to come.
The Waller family finds the clean-up prospect daunting at first, but they’re also optimistic about the stability and healing they hope this home outside the Twin Cities will bring. Ray Waller (Wyatt Russell) is a former major league baseball great whose multiple sclerosis diagnosis has forced him to retire from the game that’s long defined him. His wife, Eve (“The Banshees of Inisherin” Oscar nominee Kerry Condon), looks forward to laying down roots after moving the family from city to city for so many years. Teenage daughter Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) has gotten better at fitting in by maintaining an attitude of cool detachment, but younger brother Elliot (Gavin Warren), a shy, scrawny kid, hasn’t been as successful.
The pool offers a sense of promise for all of them: healing waters, afternoon diversions, a social life, a quiet moment under the stars. McGuire often puts us on edge using distorted underwater perspective, and that works for a while. But eventually he relies too heavily on jump scares, as well as a running bit in which someone inside the pool thinks they see someone standing on the edge, watching, but no one’s there. And then once “Night Swim” goes out of its way to explain what’s really happening, it’s far less interesting than the ambiguous idea that this pool is just straight-up menacing.
The reveal of the entity that’s causing all this terror is laugh-out-loud hilarious, though, and I’m going to choose to assume that was McGuire’s intention. “Night Swim” also features amusing turns in small, supporting roles from Nancy Lenehan as the Minnesota-nice real estate agent who sells the family the house and Ben Sinclair as an oddball pool technician. And Russell clearly knows what movie he’s in as evidenced by some of his line deliveries, which are innocent and earnest in the face of increasingly absurd circumstances. It’s as if he’s beckoning us: Come on in, the water’s fine.
In theaters today.