‘Night Swim’ review: More like Amityville bore

Last January, Blumhouse gave us the absolute treasure that is murder doll M3GAN. This January, the horror studio has tossed us Night Swim. The former was an instantly iconic horror hit that played with genre conventions through a gleefully queer lens. The latter is an uninspired slog that plays in the deep end of cliches until it drowns. 

Written and directed by Bryce McGuire, Night Swim shamelessly riffs on unforgettable moments in Jaws, It, and Ghostbusters, while snatching the framing device from The Amityville Horror. Genre devotees will catch the references, as none are subtle, but these allusions only serve to remind us we could be watching a much better movie instead of this mid-winter fumble.

Grimly, this film doesn’t even satisfy as a so-dumb-it’s-fun horror romp — though I’d be remiss not to admit there are some highlights.

What’s Night Swim about?

Gavin Warren goes for a day swim in “Night Swim.”
Credit: Universal

Wyatt Russell stars as Ray Waller, a family man and professional baseball player who was recently forced into retirement by a multiple sclerosis diagnosis. As he struggles with his new reality, his wife Eve (The Banshees of Inisherin‘s Kerry Condon) and kids (Amélie Hoeferle and Gavin Warren) set up their new home, which boasts a big in-ground pool fed by natural spring water. Having bounced around for his career, the family is giddy about this suburban dream and the chance to finally put down roots. But the pool has other plans — because it’s haunted. 

Much like The Amityville Horror, the paranormal influence of this home most dangerously impacts the frustrated father. While his family witnesses horrific visions in and around the pool, Ray feels rejuvenated by the waters. So, like the abusive fathers who came before him, his priorities become dangerously selfish. Might Ray overcome MS with continued used of the pool? Could he return to the pro league? At what cost? Can the Waller family survive his devotion to his “water therapy”?

Wyatt Russell is woefully miscast in Night Swim.

Wyatt Russell plays Ray Waller in "Night Swim."

Wyatt Russell is a cinnamon bun.
Credit: Universal

Key to the tension of The Amityville Horror films — specifically the 1979 original and the 2005 remake — is the toxic masculinity that exudes from the father figure. In both instances, you have a man who wants to be a good dad, but the evil influence of the poltergeists in the house pushes him to a place of bullying and violence. Night Swim attempts to reconstruct this arc, but half-heartedly. For instance, Ray may be more focused on his workouts than spending time with his young son Elliot (Warren), whom Ray is generally supportive of even though the boy is (gasp!) not great at sports. 

But part of the problem is that Russell has such Golden Retriever energy that he just doesn’t read as a threat — even when the third act pitches Ray into full-on rage mode. The rampaging father should come off as menacing, but audience members were giggling as Russell shouted one-liners about the pool and the rules of Marco Polo. It’s less Jack Torrance and more Jack Lemmon. 

Night Swim is just not scary.

Shot of swimming pool through the pool filter.

Pennywise, is that you?
Credit: Universal

Aside from an underwhelming bad dad, this haunted pool thriller is awash with predictable jump scares and unoriginal creepy crawlies. An opening sequence set 30 years ago introduces a toy boat that serves as a lure for an innocent child. This light allusion to It becomes groan-inducing when another kid follows a toy toward the pool filter, which looks so much like the sewer grate setup of Pennywise the Clown attacking doomed Georgie that it flat-out feels like plagiarism. 

Night Swim‘s first onscreen death in the pool works the same way, copying the iconic stunt choreography in the opening scene from Jaws beat for beat. Although McGuire is copying a master in these sequences, his versions fall flat. Perhaps because they feel like pale imitations, so too do the monsters that lurk in the depths. Some resemble generic scribbles of ghouls from any number of forgettable horror films, while one bloated fellow looks and sounds comically like Ghostbuster‘s Slimer.

Further frustrating is the movie’s explanation for why the pool is haunted. To his credit, McGuire manages to jam in some compelling backstory. But to do so, he delivers an overlong sequence that employs stock horror imagery, like eyes dripping black goo, as well as a tiger mom stereotype that is as insensitive as it is uninspired. And all that leads to a climax that — while studded with spookiness and action — is just a mess, completed by a shrug of a resolution. 

The scariest sequence is the Marco Polo bit revealed in the trailer. 

Amélie Hoeferle night swims in "Night Swim."

Amélie Hoeferle makes a splash in the scariest scene from “”Night Swim.”
Credit: Universal

Night Swim makes frequent use of water as a cinematography device, with shots of people looking into the water or through the water up to the surface to build tension. While McGuire’s movie plays with the unnerving visual distortion therein, there is little lasting terror to be enjoyed. Perhaps this is because he’s pulling so much from recognizable horror hits that we are inured; even the film’s greatest sequence might be considered a riff on The Conjuring‘s sensational hide-and-clap sequence, notably constructed by Night Swim producer James Wan. 

At night, teen daughter Izzy (Hoeferle) has snuck her new beau over for a night swim. While her character is as thinly sketched as the rest of the Wallers, here the stakes are clear. Teen lust, flirtation, skin, fear of rejection — there are layers of vulnerability here, even without the pool poltergeists. The shots of Izzy with her eyes closed, stepping cautiously into the deep end as she calls out “Marco,” rattle with suspense. From this jumping-off point, McGuire dives into real terror with a scare that is the stuff of nightmares. But it is all too brief. 

The supporting players of Night Swim shine. 

Nancy Lenehan and the Waller family in "Night Swim."

Nancy Lenehan is a selling point as real estate agent in “Night Swim.”
Credit: Universal

While the Waller family is let down by a script that has little interest in their personalities and generally bland dialogue, a couple of character actors manage to break through. High Maintenance star Ben Sinclair scores genuine laughs as a pool tech whose main job is to drop some clues to the pool’s creepiness. Sporting a smug grin and a ball cap for Orca Pool Services (Jaws reference noted), he manages to make a meal out of this scrap of a part. 

Also splendid is consummate That Guy Nancy Lenehan. The moment you see her strained smile, you might remember her from Veep or My Name Is Earl or over 100 other performances. In Night Swim, she plays an eager-to-please real estate agent who at first seems like she might be a one-scene wonder like Sinclair. But then — thankfully — she turns up for a pool party with a bizarre blue dessert and plenty to say.

Where other performers in this film are anchored by the exposition dumps, Sinclair and Lenehan manage to make their characters come alive while delivering their dark details. In these moments, characters enthrall and entertain! There’s the promise that Night Swim might right itself and plunge into fun and thrills. Spoilers: It won’t. 

Pulling inspiration from a flood of uniquely terrifying films, Night Swim wades into horror with the right moves but no fluidity in how they come together. While it has splashes of fun, it’s ultimately a lazy effort that feels totally disposable.

Night Swim is in theaters Jan. 5.