Filling in the slot for requisite January horror film, The Bye Bye Man seeks to push a new supernatural baddie on audiences and hope the thrills he brings are worthwhile. Married duo Stacy Title (director) and Jonathan Penner (writer) have put together a fast-paced thriller that brings together elements from many horror favorites, including Candyman, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween. Working with a decent budget (for horror standards), The Bye Bye Man does plenty to reward viewers on a sensory level, but it doesn’t do much with its concept to build any sort of clever mythology or engage beyond simple horror delights.
Following a prologue that’s just stylish enough to distract you enough from the affected performances, The Bye Bye Man gets underway with the arrival of three college students at their new off-campus house. This is the kind of house that is old and large enough to scream “it’s cheap because it’s evil,” but that does little to concern Elliot (Douglas Smith), Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and John (Lucien Laviscount). Soon enough Elliot makes the discovery of the words “Bye Bye Man” scratched into a drawer, under some paper with the repeated phrase, “Don’t think it. Don’t say it,” written all over.
There is no misunderstanding the kind of horror this film is going for. The title alone spells out some kind of boogeyman will be lurking around. But why? Of the horror films that feature memorable villains of this kind, they all tend to establish some sort of wild backstory or reasoning. Those that don’t operate on a more thematic level (think It Follows). The Bye Bye Man is certainly not working as some kind of existential experience; it just wants to entertain by way of some creepy imagery and lots of jump scares. Is it effective though?
For the first half hour, yes, the film works quite well. The rest of the film trades in its intrigue for some really questionable acting, lots of predictable attempts to scare and a villain that is more interesting when he’s unseen (regardless of how great Doug Jones is at moving creepily, while under makeup). It’s a shame, because there is a good amount of atmosphere built up here and a location that works great for a horror flick, no matter how clearly haunted a house like this would seem to any college kid who has ever watched a horror movie.
Thanks to some high ceilings and long hallways, the film’s key location takes some interesting shapes and messes around with what the viewer thinks they are saying. No favors are done to explain the constant train imagery or why the Bye Bye Man has some kind of hell beast as a pet, but apparently the audience is just supposed to roll with those decisions. More questionable is wondering how these characters are supposed to deal with the concept of “Don’t think it. Don’t say it.” Not saying it should be simple enough; though you’d be surprised to the point of laughter at how often “Bye Bye Man” is stated. Trying not to think about it is basically an impossible task however, so plenty of humor really forms from the stress that slowly takes over these characters.
Talking about these characters a bit more, duress is not a good look on any of them. The film relies on having the characters being tricked into seeing what isn’t there, but also having them ride out their confusion for a good chunk of the film. The results eventually become laughable to the point of hoping the campiness was intended. That is actually fine for a group of young actors, who can look back on something like this, but what about poor Carrie-Anne Moss or freaking Faye Dunaway? These two show up for a couple five-minute scenes and really have you hoping they were in on the joke and were fed well, while on set.
Hopefully that was enough for everyone, as the film may have been made with a level of passion and excitement to be creating a new scary figure, but it really misses out on intensity. Part of that comes down to an obvious notion to edit the film into a PG-13 horror flick (shotgun blasts through people merely upset the plaster and quick edits are abundant), but there is also the lack of regard for horror logic. No, I don’t need the characters to act realistically (nor would I know how that would be accomplished in this sort of scenario), but it’s hard to be drawn in when I have too many questions regarding every choice being made.
Still, The Bye Bye Man is far from unengaging, given some camp value, but that aspect ultimately takes over in a way that renders the film ineffective as a scary experience. Obvious jump scares and some nifty visual moments only do so much in a film that finds an audience laughing for reasons not related to uncomfortable tension. As for the Bye Bye Man himself, his power-based motives do not give him much to be memorable for and it’s probably best to hang his coat somewhere in the back of the closet.