It’s ‘The Amityville Horror’ in a Swimming Pool



A year ago, “M3GAN,” one of the snazziest films ever produced by Blumhouse Productions, was the exception to the rule of first-weekend-of-January trash thrillers. The movie was witty and shivery in a preposterous way, its robot doll scenario actually had a thing or two to say about AI, and it gave us the year’s most memorable android-girl dance meme — at least, until Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday Addams danced with her hands to Lady Gaga’s “Bloody Mary.” But now, opening in the same junkyard weekend slot, we have another Blumhouse production, “Night Swim,” which restores a certain order to the cinematic universe by being as tepid and unscary as a proper early-in-January movie should be.

“Night Swim” is about a family that moves into a house with a backyard swimming pool that’s haunted, and everything about the spirits that rule this pool — the ghost backstory, the greenish-brown sludge that oozes up from the drain, the toys that move of their own volition, the watery glimpses of ominous figures standing by the pool, who then vanish — is random and second-hand in a way that recalls the “Amityville Horror” films.

This one, waterlogged as it is, should have been called “The Aquatyville Horror,” and some might consider that a recommendation. But I never cared for the “Amityville” movies, with their “ominous” buzzing flies and their grab-bag atmosphere of threadbare haunted trickery. The title of “Night Swim” suggests the heightened sensual atmosphere of a college pool party, and that’s probably what it should have been: a slasher film set in the 12-foot deep. Instead, it’s a family horror movie, and this is one case where you really feel the PG-13-ness of it all. The writer-director, Bryce McGuire, isn’t incompetent, but each time he draws upon a thriller like “Ringu,” you’re aware of how mild the shocks are. Despite the swimming-pool-from-hell premise, we never feel immersed in the movie’s terror.  

Maybe that’s because we’re supposed to be engrossed in the story of the Wallers, the nice family that has moved onto a nice residential street in the Twin Cities, even as they’re reeling from trauma. Ray Waller, played by the MCU’s Wyatt Russell in a beard that makes him look like James Cameron’s creepy academic brother, is a professional baseball star, a third baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers who’s been sidelined after being diagnosed with MS. He walks with a cane, and the disease is progressing; on his latest visit to the doctor, he’s told to forget about ever playing baseball again. Ray is trying to look on the bright side of it all. This could be the chance to stop moving his family around and put down roots. That’s what his wife, Eve, played with vivid shades of distraughtness by “The Banshees of Inisherin’s” Kerry Condon, would like to do. She’s trying to see Ray’s misfortune as an opportunity.

All of this, if milked for the proper psychological tension, might have had the makings of an effective thriller. That movie would have needed to play off Ray’s underlying resentment of his condition. “Night Swim,” however, evokes yet bypasses all that for a scenario that proves to be at once more convoluted and cornier. The doctor recommends water therapy for Ray’s flagging muscles, and the swimming pool proves more effective than anyone might have guessed. Submerged there, Ray starts to get his strength back; he goes through a miraculous recovery. The downside, not to reveal too much, is that while the pool giveth, the pool also taketh away. To use what becomes the film’s catch phrase, “Love requires sacrifice.”

The girl who became a ghost is introduced in the opening scene, a flashback set in 1992. Her name is Rebecca, and when her long black hair floats out of one of the pool’s skimmer vents, you’ll be momentarily reminded of “Ringu” (or its pretty good American remake). Mostly, though, you’ll be aware of how anxiety-free the scene is. There’s a halfway clever-dopey-funny moment when Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle), the Wallers’ teenage daughter, is in the pool with her eyes closed playing Marco Polo, and the figure who ends up grunting out “Polo” to her “Marco” is a monster who looks like a demon potato. But what is this monster? It’s another emanation of the pool’s evil — or, more accurately, another bit the filmmaker thought of to string the audience along until the next bit.

Yes, ghost stories can be like that, with the supernatural taking on an assortment of forms. That’s what happens in the “Conjuring” films, the first two of which were directed by James Wan (who is one of the producers here). They too, had an arbitrary quality, but they also had a sinister energy; Wan, a wizardly technician, uses the camera to tug your nervous system. In last year’s visionary shoestring haunted-house film “Skinamarink,” the spirits expressed themselves in various ways, every one of which was tantalizing; the grainy sights and sounds got under your skin. In “Night Swim,” nothing like that happens, because everything is as telegraphed as it is derivative. The film’s fear factor is all wet.         


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