Producers: James Wan and Jason Blum   Director: Bryce McGuire   Screenplay: Bryce McGuire   Cast: Wyatt Russell, Kerry Condon, Amelie Hoeferle, Gavin Warren, Jodi Long, Nancy Lenehan, Eddie Martinez, Ayazhan Dalabayeva, Elijah Roberts, Rahnuma Panthaky and Ben Sinclair   Distributor: Universal     

Grade: D-

Like quite a few horror movies of recent years, “Night Swim” originated as a short film, barely three minutes long (you can catch it on YouTube), that Bryce McGuire wrote and co-directed with Rod Blackhurst.  Ten years later Blackhurst has moved on to other projects, but McGuire has expanded his original idea and directed the resultant feature on his own. 

As usual in such cases, the expansion proves a ham-handed affair, the rare horror flick that, despite lots of jump shots and attempts at general eeriness, manages to produce virtually no scares.  It’s just painfully dull.

The movie begins with a scene reminiscent of the short film, a vignette in which a woman, swimming in a pool one night, thinks she hears a noise and sees a frightening figure; the lights go out, and when they come bank on, she’s disappeared.  Here, in a flashback set in 1992, young Rebecca (Ayazhan Dalabayeva) peers out her bedroom window and sees a toy boat, presumably her ill brother’s, in the backyard swimming pool.  She goes out to retrieve it and, leaning over the side, is sucked into the water.

Cut to the present day, where Ray Waller (Wyatt Russell), his wife Eve (Kerry Condon) and their children, teen Izzy (Amélie Hoeferle) and younger brother Elliot (Gavin Warren) are touring empty houses with a jovial realtor (Nancy Lenehan).  Ray’s a major league baseball player whose career has been cut short by the onset of multiple sclerosis.  They’re drawn to the one we recognize as Rebecca’s, mainly by the presence of the pool: Ray thinks that swimming could be therapeutic.  So they close the deal, and before long he is feeling much better; his doctor (Rahnuma Panthaky) is amazed by his improvement.  Could it be because the water—as a garrulous pool tech (Ben Sinclair, in an amusing cameo) has explained—comes not from the city supply but from an underground stream?  As they say in Minnesota, where the story is set, you betcha.

But, as we’re repeatedly reminded as the plot lumbers on, love requires sacrifice, and Ray’s physical improvement comes at a cost.  As will eventually be revealed to an increasingly concerned Eve by Rebecca’s mother (Jodi Long), the waters can restore health, but in return demand the life of others, as they turn out to have done repeatedly in the past.  First the family cat disappears, and then Izzy is threatened by strange figures (looking, in Ian S. Takahashi’s underwater photography, like grinning Michael Myers masks) while frolicking in the pool one night with handsome classmate—and swimming team star—Ronin (Elijah Roberts).

But it’s Elliot, an introspective kid with none of his dad’s athletic prowess, who becomes the target as the increasingly strong Ray is possessed by some evil force, represented by black ooze that comes out of the pool’s drainage system to take him over.  He causes a panic at a pool party where, under the pool’s spell, he endangers the son of Elliot’s school baseball coach (Eddie Martinez), and is AWOL when Elliot is nearly killed when the tarp system they’ve installed to cover the pool malfunctions and traps him.  (The scene is obviously inspired by the better executed one in Rachel Talalay’s little-remembered 1993 thriller “Ghost in the Machine.”)  But Eve intervenes to save the boy and, after her weird conversation with Rebecca’s mother, most of the family.  The movie ends with the pool being covered over with dirt, which should perhaps be the fate of the picture as well. 

The central problem with “Night Swim” isn’t that it’s fright-free (McGuire’s staging of the pool party sequence, which should have been a high point, is extraordinarily inept), but that it never satisfactorily explains what’s going on.  We get references to Faustian bargains that people make with the waters to secure their health-giving power, but aren’t shown how those bargains are made (one can imagine a “Wicker Man”-like scenario that could have been employed to provide backstory); indeed, it seems that Ray is possessed involuntarily.  And what exactly are those critters lurking beneath the waters?  Are they creatures transplanted from the black lagoon to the suburbs?  One would think that since McGuire had nearly a decade to work out the scenario, he could have done better than this.

Still, to give credit where it’s due, the cast is game.  Condon tries to infuse Eve with genuine emotion—this is no tongue-in-cheek turn—and both Hoeferle and Warren are committed kids, but they’re defeated by the weak material.  Russell proves incredibly bland as the Jack Torrance stand-in, though he does try to inject some humor into his mad moments late in the story.  Unhappily, most of the supporting cast—Lenehan, Sinclair, and especially Long—are encouraged to go over the top; it’s here that mention of tongue-in-cheek is appropriate.  The picture looks decent—Hillary Gurtler’s production design is fine, as is Charlie Sarroff’s (above water) cinematography, but given McGuire’s weak script and direction, editor Jeff McEvoy can’t do much to generate tension, and Mark Korven’s generic score doesn’t either.                       

It’s only the beginning of January, but this waterlogged attempt to establish a genre franchise (since it’s set in Minnesota, how about a sequel called “Night Hockey,” in which the pool has frozen over?) could wind up being one of the worst films of the year.  On the other hand, if you take it as a parody of bad horror movies, it might become a camp classic.