Night Swim (2024)
Bad horror movies hitting theaters in January has become one of the absolute certainties of the film world calendar. It is Hollywood’s equivalent of Christmas merchandise going on sale and holiday radio stations returning to year-round music on December 26th. Oscar contenders have opened in major markets and will expand nationwide as nomination lists pile up and buzz builds. The big budget blockbusters that have staked their claim to winter break business will continue to draw in some laggards and returning viewers. And for those who don’t intend to spend winter primarily on their couch, the studios offer horror movies that don’t need much to break even.
January movies aren’t always bad. 2022’s Scream was a surprisingly fun “requel” that breathed life into the old Wes Craven slasher franchise. Light winter competition also made sense for Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and the two Paddington movies, modern day classics that will be remembered long after the particulars of their releases are. There’s also a long line of middling moneymakers, from the 1980s’ Down and Out in Beverly Hills to 2020’s Bad Boys for Life and last January’s M3GAN. But if you’ve got a bad movie today, don’t want to send it straight to streamers, and want it to at least have a chance not to land with a thud, January is often your final refuge.
This is clearly the route taken for Night Swim, a movie that will be blasted by critics and trusting moviegoers alike, but might just open in first place all the same.
Adapting and expanding the five-minute short film he and Rod Blackhurst made together in 2014, writer-director Bryce McGuire makes an ignoble feature debut with the story of a Minnesota house whose swimming pool appears to be haunted.
Sick Major League Baseball slugger Ray Waller (Wyatt Russell) and his family of four have just moved to the Twin Cities, where he hopes to progress in his recovery and get back to the big leagues. Ray’s wife Eve (Kerry Condon, choosing a poor follow-up to her Oscar-nominated turn in The Banshees of Inisherin) and their two school-aged kids (Amélie Hoeferle) and (Gavin Warren) are adjusting to their new home. The pool seems to be just what Ray needs, as his daily dips in it produces health improvements that shock his new doctor.
But alas, as foretold by a prologue set in 1992 in which an Asian girl disappeared in the same pool, there are some dark, sinister, otherworldly forces at play within the Wallers’ freshly restored in-ground pool.
Between the public’s appetite for horror fare and studios’ need for profitable movies, the creative standards for the genre seem to be perpetually set at modest heights. Offbeat adult dramedy? Pass. Quirky genre-defying work from a novice? No thanks. A horror movie with a concept that’s easy to convey in marketing and for moviegoers around the world? It’s a green light.
I don’t think anyone behind Night Swim could in good faith argue that this is a creative or fulfilling movie. Even McGuire, who has fifteen years of shorts to his name and his future at stake, would be hard-pressed to defend this nonsense. (He already has a chance to rebound as the screenwriter of the upcoming horror film Imaginary.) But, Universal and oft-successful producers James Wan and Jason Blum, whose Atomic Monster and Blumhouse production companies just finalized a merger this week, might well be in the clear, as long as enough people pay to see this before word of its poor quality becomes common knowledge. Even then, it’s just a few more weeks until Peacock has a high-profile 2024 movie to offer its subscribers.
In the wake of last year’s extended writer and actor strikes, there is a dearth of content coming our way in the first half of 2024. Given the choice to show Night Swim or nothing at all, theater owners will gladly take the former. But this is far from first-rate filmmaking and moviegoing.
There are ways for lackluster movies to make up for their creative shortcomings. Compelling cinematography, a stirring score, enveloping sound design, details that ring true. Night Swim doesn’t have any of that, unfortunately. It’s preposterous to think that the Russell family, Universal, and the horror genre once came together to give us The Thing, a masterwork of thrilling, atmospheric cinema.
Wyatt wasn’t yet around in 1982, but he’s been around in movies of his own for over a decade, including the enjoyable Ingrid Goes West and Overlord. Despite that decent track record, his withdrawn performance here makes it easy to mistake him for some nepo baby newcomer. Across from him, Condon does not strike you as someone invited to last year’s Academy Awards as nominee. The young actors playing their two kids get about as much screentime as their parents, but with nothing to do but look afraid as they feel the ominous pull of their pool. How disappointing it must be to book a major studio movie in your teens, think your acting dreams are coming true, and end up being embarrassed as the face of something so incoherent and underwhelming.
There are a few glimmers of hope, as the flickering pool light and jump scare underwater hobgoblin give way to some world-building, but this fails to add up to anything special. As the number one studio of 2023, the current Universal has as good a shot as anyone to turn a bad horror movie like this into profit. In no way do I encourage you to help make that happen.
Starring Wyatt Russell
Ghosts of Januarys Past
DVDizzy Top Stories
- The Golden Globes are Sunday. Read up on the nominated films: Oppenheimer, Barbie, The Holdovers, Saltburn, Across the Spider-Verse.
- Now in theaters: The Boys in the Boat, Wonka, Wish, Napoleon, Hunger Games: Songbirds & Snakes, Trolls 3, Next Goal Wins.
- Now on home video, #1 movie of 2023: Barbie 4K reviewed.