John Polson, 2002, US, 85 mins
Jesse Bradford, Erika Christensen, Shiri Appleby, Kate Burton, Clayne Crawford, Jason Ritter, James DeBello
In Smalltown USA, the handsome young High School swimming star is a clean-cut college boy who gets on with his mom, dotes on his girlfriend and even works part-time in the local hospital. Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) is as wholesome as apple pie but not in the cloying, nauseating way that most cinematic jocks are presented. Ben is a nice guy. Almost.
Ben is very good at picking locks. We discover this when he leaps to the rescue of the buxom blonde new girl, Madison (Erika Christensen), and helps her break into her locker. As she hands him a grip from her hair in order to conduct the deed, she may as well be handing him a poisoned chalice. Ben has a bad boy past. His drugs and stealing habit led to six months in juvenile hall where, he tells us, swimming was what saved him.
"Are you good, Ben Cronin?" Purrs Madison in a double-entendre directed supposedly at his swimming skills. Madison brings out the worst in Ben; she causes the repressed to literally swim to the surface. It takes Madison's arrival for the audience to learn about this dubious skill of Ben's and in doing so Madison is posited immediately as a temptress. In old wives tales, mermaids were the temptresses that lured men to their deaths - "sirens" - and here we have (Erika Christensen) looking suspiciously like Portia de Rossi in the film of the same name. And "Madison"? Daryl Hannah in Splash, anyone? In likening her to one of these mythical creatures, it reinforces an enigmatic, slightly unreal quality about Madison. We think we know all about her, but why is she here? Where has she come from? What is she up to?
Having nearly run her over in his truck, Ben feels duty-bound to offer her a lift home providing Madison with the perfect opportunity to exert her power over him. Before long, Ben is dutifully playing Adam to her Eve as she joins him on one of his swims. Even then, Ben struggles against the temptress: "I Can't do this" "It's alright - our little secret." He succumbs and in doing so sets in motion his own downfall.
Madison is the antithesis of the traditional villain, being very much a solid, blonde all-American girl, the natural mate for a boy like Ben, and the juxtaposition alongside her mysterious movements and increasingly obsessional behaviour adds to the effect. Madison begins to stalk Ben, sending him revealing pictures of herself and 81 emails as 'Swimfan85'. She turns up at his house, makes friends with his sweet girlfriend Amy (Shiri Appleby), and starts dating his best friend. And events are set to turn even more sinister.
Swimfan is a basically a teenflick, very often a term used in a derogatory manner. However, where most American films featuring deaths among High School teens owe a debt to the slashers of the late seventies and early eighties, Swimfan follows the path laid down by Brian De Palma and even Hitchcock (including its high octane, somewhat far-fetched ending). Director John Polson uses the device of 'less is more', building up the tension by playing with the senses. It is the sounds and the colours that most resonate - the use of cold blues and metallic hues, and echoing, distorted noises - evoking the sense of being underwater.
But the film Swimfan is most indebted to is Val Lewton's Cat People (1942, dir. Jacques Tourneur), the scenes in the swimming pool in particular.
As with Amenabar's The Others, its UK BBFC classification of 12A is deceptive; this is an exceptionally well made, creepy film from a clearly very talented director.