Tepid scares, distanced characters water down horrors of ‘Night Swim’

Director/writer Bryce McGuire contributes a tepid disappointment to the “there’s something in the water” horror genre with “Night Swim,” a plodding, suspense-starved family-in-jeopardy opus that commits the cardinal sin of skimping on the scares.

Eve (Kerry Condon) risks being liquidated by a malevolent force in the watered-down horror tale “Night Swim.” Universal Pictures

For sure, “Night Swim” throws a few cheap jump-shocks in our faces. A lot of black goo and sudden appearances of a demonic entity with moldy skin and eye issues worse than Paul Giamatti’s teacher had in “The Holdovers.”

Despite some earnest performances from a competent cast, McGuire’s movie distances its characters just enough to make it difficult for us to fully invest in them and their strange circumstances, some of which feel extremely familiar.

Oh, that might be because specific events in “Night Swim” appear to be cobbled together from key elements in “It,” “Cocoon,” “The Amityville Horror” and “The Exorcist.”

Gavin Warren stars as Elliot Waller in the horror movie “Night Swim” directed by Bryce McGuire. Universal Pictures

Let’s consider the intriguing premise: A haunted swimming pool possesses the restorative power to heal and strengthen ailing swimmers, but then requires a small sacrifice – a family member, for instance.

When the Waller family moves into their new home, they have no idea that a previous occupant, a little girl, has already disappeared at the bottom of the backyard pool.

Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt) plays Ray Waller, a former professional baseball player in the early stages of Multiple Sclerosis. He restores the dilapidated pool to help him cope with his illness. His wife Eve (recent Oscar nominee Kerry Condon), young daughter Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and younger son Elliot (Gavin Warren) are happy they no longer need to move because Dad got traded, again.

Soon the Wallers see why they bought the house so cheap.

They spot mysterious figures popping into brief view. They regret sticking their hands into holes. Pool lights flash off and on. Why does the evil entity bother to create such cliched stuff, except to remind us we’re supposed to be watching a horror tale?

A professional baseball player suffering from MS (Wyatt Russell) discovers the healing powers of his backyard pool come with chilling consequences In the watered-down horror tale “Night Swim.” Universal Pictures

“Night Swim” capitalizes on our primal fear of being trapped underwater and unable to breathe. Yet, shots of characters struggling for air go on forever, as if they can comfortably navigate a frighteningly bottomless pool like the offspring of Aquaman.

McGuire based his movie on his 2014 film short, and obviously hoped to imitate the success of other horror features expanded from film shorts. (Classic example: Mike Flanagan’s 2013 “Oculus,” a suspensefully twisty thriller about a haunted mirror based on his 2006 film short shown at Palatine’s Blue Whiskey Film Festival.)

“Night Swim” -- the first release under the recent merger of James Wan’s Atomic Monster and Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions – hints at what it could have been when we find out the cringy backstory of what really happened to the little girl vanished in the opening sequence.

That, and a sinister game of Marco Polo tread the waters of our deepest fears in a movie that refuses to leave the shallow end.

“Night Swim”

2 stars

Starring: Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, Amelie Hoeferi, Gavin Warren

Directed by: Bryce McGuire

Other: A Universal Pictures theatrical release. Rated PG-13 for language, terror, violence. 98 minutes

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