Let’s get one thing out of the way from the beginning: Night Swim isn’t a good horror movie, even by PG-13 standards. It’s not scary, it’s not particularly suspenseful, and it takes the now-hackneyed “trauma plot” so deep into the realm of parody that even the trope’s staunchest supporters might find themselves reaching for the life preservers. But… for that particular kind of viewer who looks to January’s perpetually lackluster crop of horror flotsam with the eye of a collector, who thought M3gan was too self-aware for its own good but who saw the trailer for The Pope’s Exorcist and just knew… this movie is for you. 

As the first film released after the Blumhouse/Atomic Monster merger, responses to Night Swim seem eager to associate it more with James Wan‘s confident use of genre pulp and comedy a la Malignant than Jason Blum‘s far duller approach to similar fare. But Night Swim (which my household has been calling Death Pool: The Pool That Eats People in loving reference to Death Bed) isn’t self-aware or self-reflexive, even if some reviews seem to wish it was. Rather this film about a haunted killer swimming pool – a premise that feels like the product of a threat made at gunpoint, “Make this swimming pool scary, or else” – is given a real college try.

A dumbfounding choice, perhaps, but one that turns what could have been just another desperately winking Sharknado-redux into the much more rewarding arena of genuine deadpan kitsch. The end result is a strange, tenuous balancing act, objectively failed, both as a metaphor for the familial trauma instilled by long-term illness and as a horror film, yet competently directed enough to belie the boredom often instilled by this kind of January movie, and with the neverending gift of a genuinely silly premise taken to its (il)logical conclusion. Ultimately, viewer mileage may vary (specifically by how funny you think the incessant use of the words “pool” and “baseball” are in an ostensibly scary context), but for a particular cult horror audience, Night Swim is a real treat. 

Honey, This Place Has A Pool! 

Night Swim opens with a flashback to 1992 suburbia that immediately evokes the likes of Poltergeist and It. A little girl, Rebecca (Ayazhan Dalabayeva), wakes up in the middle of the night with the urge to play with a toy boat in her family’s deeply uninteresting-looking backyard pool (this particular water feature boasts no hot tub, no jets, not even fun colored lights to spice up its grey concrete confines). Needless to say, this doesn’t go well for the little girl, in a vignette that both sets up the rules of death pool (flickering lights=bad) and proves that first time director Bryce McGuire is capable of building a decent suspense sequence. Cut to the present.

source: Universal Pictures

Our victims, the Waller family, find themselves in the market for a new place after their affable patriarch, Ray (actor and former hockey player Wyatt Russell), is diagnosed with M.S. and forced to leave his major league baseball career behind. Unwilling to face up to the severity of his condition, Ray resists renting the highly accessible single story place their realtor shows them, instead finding himself drawn to a home with a battered “for sale” sign out front and, yes, a pool in the back. His struggle to reconcile his desperate desire to regain his health with his responsibilities to his family is technically the emotional core of the film, though these beats are so marred by the pulpy, dimestore premise – the pool water will magically help him recover, for a price – that his dilemma, and its impact on his family, is undeniably comic. 

The next hour and a half of screen time oscillates between family scenes that give the impression that none of these characters have ever met before (Kerry Condon‘s shockingly committed presence, fresh off of an Oscar nomination no less, is just one of this pool’s mysteries) and swimming scenes, most of which aren’t set at night. The PG-13 rating unfortunately forces a slow burn structure onto what should have been an all-out slasher feeding frenzy; the mandatory pool party scene in particular promises more than it delivers. Nevertheless, in perhaps the film’s most commendable aspect, the filmmakers seem to have thought a lot about pool mechanics, somehow finding more and more new locations inside this small concrete rectangle to deploy for tension, creating surreal watery depths and shooting at creative angles even when the scenes themselves remain largely the same. Similarly, the film’s strategy for keeping the family coming back to the pool (a highly avoidable amenity no one actually has to use) is delightfully over-the-top: Ray is literally addicted to the pool. 

source: Universal Pictures

As for supernatural mechanics, Night Swim‘s pool-based lore is shallow to say the least. Based on the director’s 2014 short film about a woman who goes swimming and gets eaten by her pool, the movie swings for the fences with a tangled backstory of sketchy internal consistency. Subplots are set up never to appear again, from swim teams to Navy Seal fathers. Indeed, some of the biggest laughs come from the film’s mystery structure and the reveals that come with it (was this suburban house a nunnery in the past? Did the swimming pool exist when it was?).

Even more laughs come from Russell‘s wonderful performance as Ray, a millennial shaggy-dog “guy’s guy” character so inappropriately entrenched in the time-honored tradition of distant-yet-loving horror dads that his son, Elliot (Gavin Warren), is dressed like Danny Torrance. Russell serves up his characters soap opera banalities with a staunchly laid-back tone nevertheless brimming with an earnest gusto (“This pool has been so good to us!”) that proves contagious. While the film may not be a fully self-aware horror comedy, the entire cast gamely delivers their groaners with a knowing, yet completely committed playfulness that keeps the overwrought family drama at Night Swim‘s core swimming right along. The family’s nosy real estate agent (Nancy Lenehan) and portentous pool tech (High Maintenance‘s Ben Sinclair) are particularly enjoyable. 


For a movie whose trailer seems to only play after that one about the killer teddy bear, this movie is batting at a surprisingly high level. While those looking for genuine chills should certainly seek them elsewhere, anyone who’s ever wondered “can a feel-good baseball drama be a supernatural folk horror movie about a swimming pool?” need look no further. Movies like this are sink or swim.

Night Swim was released in theaters on January 5, 2024!

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