January is a special time for horror fans. The holidays are over, the new year is just beginning, and the horror options at the box office are as much of a mixed bag as they’ll be all year. Some years, we get great conversation-starters like M3GAN, Missing, or Saint Maud. Other years, we suffer through another Grudge remake. But most of the time, January is a great spot for weird little curiosities like Gretel & Hansel, Underwater, or Infinity Pool — movies with tremendous bright spots that are a little too uneven to be great.
The requirements for something good in January, for most horror fans, are just that it’s interesting and/or entertaining. And despite what some reviews are saying, the “haunted swimming pool” movie Night Swim is both. It’s got one terrifically creepy sequence, a genuinely fascinating family story, some solid jokes, and a thermal spring that’s also sort of an ancient god. And if that still isn’t enough for you, it’s also weirdly as much about baseball as it is about swimming at night.
The movie follows the Waller family as they move into a new house. The dad, Ray (a terrific Wyatt Russell), is a baseball star suffering from multiple sclerosis, but harboring dreams of playing again one day. His wife, Eve (Kerry Condon), is more than capable of taking care of things around the house, since Ray’s career previously kept him away for days and weeks at a time. And the kids, Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and Elliot (Gavin Warren), are desperate to settle into a new school for good this time, after years of moving wherever their dad got traded. They’re hoping they might even be able to play some sports themselves. Also, their new house features a magic swimming pool — but that’s a revelation for later.
While Night Swim’s PG-13 rating ensures the imagery never heads too far into the deep end, Bryce McGuire’s directorial debut is still pretty haunting on occasion. The opening scene, in which a small girl falls victim to the mysterious pool, is particularly terrifying. The girl chases her brother’s toy boat around the pool as its lights flicker and shadowy figures appear all around her in the darkness. It’s an impressively creepy little set-piece, but it also sets the perfect tone for the movie. Night Swim’s best scares are the ones that lurk just outside what we can see, whether that’s at the edge of the pool or the edges of what the movie’s characters say and do.
The best example of that, believe it or not, is in the movie’s baseball subplot. Ray isn’t a bad father, necessarily, but it’s clear that his passion for baseball has left little room in his heart or head for anything else. He’s moved his family around constantly, he’s been gone for huge portions of his kids’ lives, and he missed his wife giving birth to their first child because he was on the field.
The movie never suggests what we should do with any of this information, or whether we should judge him for it, apart from making it clear that he’s done his best. There’s no question that he loves his kids and his wife, but his love for them fills in the cracks of the passion he built his life around, not the other way around. It’s a profoundly quiet kind of tragedy for a horror-comedy about a killer pool, but the silliness around Ray’s situation is what makes it hit so hard, and lets it tie back into the pool situation so nicely.
[Ed. note: The rest of this review contains lore and theme spoilers for Night Swim.]
The pool in the Wallers’ new backyard is, as it turns out, connected to a magic spring that people used to worship thousands of years ago. The spring would bring its followers their greatest desire, but in exchange, they had to sacrifice a life to the pool. The ancient people figured this out and used it consciously, but the modern world tends to be less aware of supernatural costs.
Ray never knows the rules of the magical pool, or why it suddenly starts to heal his MS. He just knows he’s getting stronger, and that his physical therapy in the pool is helping him heal. So when the pool starts presenting a danger to his kids, he barely even notices. He’s getting what he wants, after all.
The only time Night Swim chooses to make its metaphors louder than this is when Eve confronts the house’s previous owner (and the pool’s previous user), an older woman who can’t help but constantly brag about her son. He was a wonderful boy who spent his childhood sickly, she says, but after their stay in the house, he magically recovered and has turned into an impressive young man. When Eve confronts the former owner about whether she ever had a daughter, the woman finally expresses Night Swim’s pitch-black fear out loud, effectively saying “It’s better this way.” She didn’t mind sacrificing her daughter for her son.
It’s a fantastically bleak scene, aided by clever makeup effects and disgusting-looking black water, and it lays out the movie’s fear elegantly. It’s the book version of The Shining, refracted through the shallow end of culture: What if a parent’s personal desires outweighed their love for their kids? Night Swim explores the point where Ray is ultimately willing to stop putting his passion for baseball ahead of his family, even if he doesn’t realize the ways he’s doing it.
That’s a fascinating question that the movie’s set-piece finale can’t quite live up to: It trades in its fantastic subtlety in favor of an Insidious-like trip through a spirit world. But the fact that the movie raises questions about priorities and parenting at all is enough to elevate it beyond its seemingly silly premise. For most of its run time, Night Swim is a much deeper and more incisive look at quiet familial dysfunction than most movies that make that their whole focus.
All the strengths of its family story aside, it’s probably fair to want a little more horror out of a movie about a killer swimming pool. There are a few fun bits of pool horror in Night Swim, like seeing another world behind the flap of the skimmer or the spring of an empty diving board playing like a warning sign to run. Outside of its opening scene, though, Night Swim isn’t the scariest movie about hungry spirits and ancient gods. But hey, it’s January. Horror fans will take what we can get. Sometimes that just means a few good scares in an otherwise fascinating family movie about magic pools and baseball — which is more than enough to make Night Swim a worthy addition to the list of interesting, watchable January horror.
Night Swim is currently playing in theaters.