In the opening sequence of It, the 2017 film adaptation of Stephen King’s terrifying novel of the same name, Bill Denbrough is helping his little brother, Georgie, create a paper sailboat on a stormy day. To finish the project, though, Bill needs Georgie to grab some wax from the basement. It’s a simple task, but for an imaginative 6-year-old, the prospect of descending down into a dark, damp cellar is the stuff of nightmares. Director Andy Muschietti does a great job of capturing an irrational childhood fear and turning it into something we can all relate to. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go down there, either:
Of course, Georgie returns from the basement unscathed, only to suffer a gruesome fate at the hands of the monstrous Pennywise later on. (Not to roast a small child’s survival instincts, but how are you not running for the hills when a creepy clown is hanging out in a sewer drain?!) Fear is an essential component of It: It’s something Pennywise feeds on while shape-shifting into whatever will scare its victim the most, rational or otherwise. Clearly, Pennywise was taking some cues from Hollywood.
For decades, the horror genre has terrorized audiences by homing in on phobias. Some of these fears are universal: After watching The Descent or Gerald’s Game, who wouldn’t be afraid of confined spaces with no means of escape? But there’s something to be said about horror movies that manage to mine scares from obscure fears: I didn’t even realize somniphobia was a thing until I watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. (Apologies to Freddy Krueger; I wasn’t really familiar with your game.) In that spirit, the first major horror release of 2024 imagines terror lurking within the most unexpected place of all: a sinister [checks notes] swimming pool?
In Night Swim, produced by horror icons James Wan and Jason Blum, professional baseball player Ray Waller (Wyatt Russell) is forced into early retirement after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. As Ray and his wife, Eve (Kerry Condon), go about finding a new place to raise their two kids, they end up touring a home with a massive, run-down pool. Tired of constantly moving during Ray’s playing days, the couple is ready to put down some roots—even better, easy access to a pool is exactly what Ray needs to manage his condition with water therapy. But once the Wallers start using the pool, it’s clear that something is amiss. The pool lights ominously flicker at night, the family cat goes missing (RIP, Cider), and the characters experience creepy visions and hear voices. Haunted houses are a dime a dozen in the genre, but it’s not every day you watch a film about a killer swimming pool.
To be sure, water can be scary under the right circumstances: Jaws has long been cited as a major cause of people’s irrational fear of sharks; movies like Open Water and The Reef will make you think twice about an oceanic getaway. But those fears don’t necessarily translate from the sea to someone’s backyard—at least not without some ingenuity. Night Swim is based on writer-director Bryce McGuire’s 2014 short film of the same name, which he codirected with Rod Blackhurst. In the short, which runs only under four minutes with credits, a woman (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is swimming alone at night when she notices a shadowy figure watching her by the pool. When she comes up for air, nobody is there—not long after, she’s dragged down to the pool’s depths, never to be seen again. It’s effectively creepy in its simplicity, a premise grounded in the feeling you might’ve gotten as a kid that there’s something in the swimming pool waiting to attack you. At the same time, nothing about the short screams, “This needs the feature-length treatment.”
To McGuire’s credit, I can’t envision anyone working harder to convince moviegoers that a goddamn pool could be a proper horror villain. Like a student doing whatever it takes to meet the word count on an essay, Night Swim throws out every possible water-based scenario to torment the Wallers in its 90-odd-minute running time: swimming alone at night, swimming alone during the day, diving for quarters, a game of Marco Polo with some supernatural intervention, a possessed pool cover (?) that’s trying to drown a child, a pool party gone awry. The movie’s insistence on making the pool the centerpiece of absolutely everything occasionally hits the so-bad-it’s-good sweet spot, especially when the characters are saying things like:
“I used to be scared of pools.”
“We have a pool.” [Smiles]
“There’s something wrong with this pool!”
“This pool is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me!”
[Menacingly] “YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO SAY POLO!”
(In an alternate universe, cinema’s real-life Ocean Master, James Cameron, never recovers from directing Piranha II: The Spawning and Night Swim becomes his magnum opus.)
Against all odds, there are some interesting ideas at play in Night Swim. When characters are attacked, they get dragged down to a watery abyss that’s like a more literal spin on the Sunken Place: one of the rare times when the film is genuinely unsettling and creative in its aquatic imagery. For Ray, the pool also appears to be curing his MS, so much so that he attends his son’s baseball practice and hits a ball hard enough that it smashes one of the stadium lights. The fact that Ray thinks about the pool before blasting a home run implies some kind of psychic connection between man and water, which is just wonderfully batshit. (As I explained to my colleague Ben Lindbergh, the power of the pool flowed through him, which I don’t believe counts as one of MLB’s banned substances. For some reason, this movie loves baseball almost as much as it loves pools.)
But for all the absurd moments that rise to the surface of Night Swim, the film is never comfortable embracing all of its schlocky potential. Where Night Swim really flounders is in its attempts to explain the supernatural occurrences surrounding the pool and how it affects the people who use it. The notion of water as a powerful, malevolent force with a will of its own is certainly intriguing, but the film makes the fatal mistake of taking its pool-centric mythology far too seriously. Even as Ray develops an unhealthy obsession with his new hobby, like he’s Jack Torrance in board shorts, this isn’t the Overlook Hotel; it’s an evil swimming pool. Would it be so hard to fully dive into the deep end of silliness?
Alas, Night Swim doesn’t have enough waterlogged nonsense to qualify it for the so-bad-it’s-good canon. Horror obsessives will still find some joy in a movie in which Wyatt Russell and Kerry Condon engage in passionate arguments about family, baseball, and whether their new pool is trying to murder them. But Night Swim won’t do for pools what Jaws did for the ocean: This is one irrational fear you won’t have to worry about resurfacing. That doesn’t mean, however, that McGuire is done trying to ruin our childhoods: On the heels of Night Swim, he’s a cowriter on Imaginary, Blumhouse’s upcoming horror flick about an imaginary friend in the form of a teddy bear with some nefarious intentions. Hopefully, Imaginary will do more with its wacky premise than McGuire’s lackluster directorial debut does. After all, when it comes to high-concept horror movies, it’s a sink or swim affair.