The Midnight Swim: Cosmic-Folk-Horror Cinema

I was first made aware of Sarah Adina Smith’s stunning debut film The Midnight Swim about a year ago, more through happenstance than the usual six-degrees-of-whatever-film-I-might-be-watching method. An avid record collector, I happened to see a seven-inch of the film’s score for sale, and I fell in love with the artwork. Little did I know, it was a still from the movie. On a whim, I purchased the two-track record, and the ethereal, dreamlike music by Mister Squinter and Ellen Reid filled my eardrums. It had been on my watchlist since. Now, Yellow Veil Pictures is making the film more accessible and easier to find with a re-release on all digital platforms and a crave-worthy Blu-Ray release.  

The Midnight Swim isn’t your typical horror fare. Shot in a documentary/found-footage style, the film is mostly a dramatic affair telling the story of three sisters who return home to settle their mother’s (Willy’s Wonderland’s Beth Grant) estate after she’s gone missing. Their mother, the head of the lake’s conservation society, went on a dive in the lake and never resurfaced. The siblings, Isa (The Mandela Effect’s Aleksa Palladino), June (The Invitation’s Lindsay Burdge), and Annie (Take Back the Night’s Jennifer Lafleur), are all at different stages in their life and this reunion has the markings of reconnection and disappointment. 

June waves at the camera from bed in The Midnight Swim

From the start of the film, it becomes clear that June is the subject of The Midnight Swim. Our first interaction with her onscreen is a wave to the audience against a gingham headboard and colorful wallpaper. She’s filming this years-later encounter with her sisters, and without saying a word, it starts in that room. This muted yet notable moment hints at June’s headspace and her struggle with mental instability. In the early dialogue, we’re told she’s afraid of swimming, and she muses to her sisters about their mother’s belief in reincarnation, which leads to the choices and revelations June makes at the end of the film.

Isa continues this new age philosophy when she gives their neighbor Josh (Stranger Things Ross Partridge) a palm reading. The downtrodden, recently separated Josh becomes a beacon of hope to Isa as their relationship blossoms. Their relationship acts as a side story in The Midnight Swim, but it adds some levity to the tonally morose subject matter in a way similar to The Big Chill. Isa and Josh discuss the fact no one has ever seen the bottom of Spirit Lake and recount a fable of seven sisters who drowned trying to save each other from being pulled to the bottom.  

Annie has the unfortunate task of being the oldest and burdened with responsibility. Besides dramatic outbursts that reveal this later in the plot, you’ll see Annie washing dishes and bringing up settling their mother’s affairs, attempting to take care of business and her younger sisters. The seven sisters’ story feeds into a local legend about summoning the spirit of the seventh sister if you perform a ritual incantation at midnight that is a little similar to Candyman. The ritual leans toward the creepy side and provides a witchcraft element. Smith captures the darkness of the moment well by having Isa gather candles for the ceremony. June’s added invocation of the spirit at the end makes the scene slightly more unsettling. Further tension is created when birds begin crashing into the windows in the middle of the night, waking the sisters up. Annie, mothering her sisters, precautionarily removes the perfectly preserved bird from the house when her sisters investigate. 

June appears at the end of the dock in The Midnight Swim

Supernatural elements in The Midnight Swim are presented with a more enchanting and soulful atmosphere. The birds repeatedly flying into the windows are linked to another story about the constellation Pleiades, also known as The Seven Sisters. June muses that the seventh sister in the constellation can’t be seen by the naked eye, deepening the mystery of Spirit Lake. Strange things continue to happen. A timelapse video of the lake overnight is recorded on June’s camera even though June denies filming it. 

Sarah Adina Smith’s film is primarily a character study that looks at sisterhood, grief, and the collective growing-up experience. These characters’ stories may have originated here, but their lives have turned out very differently. Now, occupying the rooms they had as children, there’s a psychological component in reverting to who they were as children, breaking slightly from their daily mold with childish jokes and pranks and even creating a music video using the camera.  

The Midnight Swim works some beautiful artistic shots into the film, elevating it beyond most found-footage movies. The simple style yields extraordinary cinematic returns in the decadent beauty of midnight on Spirit Lake and images set against vibrant wallpaper. Though not specifically a ghost story—perhaps in a surreal way—it reminded me a bit of Lake Mungo, another found-footage/documentary-style film that uses character development and beautiful cinematography to tell its story. The Midnight Swim doesn’t have the same shocking end, opting more for a cosmic anomaly not often found in the genre. There are many clues to what is happening if the viewer is paying attention, leading to an ending that has a pleasant, comforting warmth to it.  

The new cover art for The Midnight Swim Blu-Ray release
Image courtesy of Yellow Veil Pictures.

By the end, most will decide The Midnight Swim isn’t a horror film because there are no scares and categorize it as a sci-fi drama. I would argue that it has elements of both folk and cosmic horror and is simply one of the more realistic films we’ve seen in the genre, which says a lot given the film’s ending. It doesn’t have to be a blood-soaked scare parade to wade into these waters. These characters have no idea what they’re facing in the wake of losing their mother. Unguided and underprepared, they meander through existence feeling the same pull of the lake their mother did, wanting to go back and pursue other opportunities and make different choices. What is discovered by the end is hope. It’s not the carnage trip we expect in the genre, but instead a well-plotted and lovingly made film.  

The Midnight Swim is set to receive a proper release on January 25. This includes all major VOD platforms and a Blu-Ray packed with special features that include some of the director’s early shorts, full cast and director commentary, and featurette. Not to mention the gorgeous cover art by Aleksander Walijewski, who designed last year’s The Amusement Park poster. The limited-edition disc will also contain a booklet containing Smith’s artwork for the film and multiple essays.

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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