Movie Review: The Bye Bye Man
By Ben Gruchow
January 17, 2017

If I have to hear Cant' Stop the Feeling one more time...

The concept isn't inherently dead in the water. Take a story about an ancient demon who shows up when its name is said aloud, make total human ignorance of it the only weakness, and set it at a point in history when any form of communication is almost certainly recorded and indexed for eternal recall. Add in the ability to incite lethal hallucinations in its victims and make them unknowingly homicidal or suicidal, and the components are there for success.

Hiding somewhere in this equation is a successful allegory about sacrificing discretion at the hands of all-encompassing information access, or letting fear of a thing dictate its power over you, or how fragile trust between allies can be. Or there could just be a really unsettling horror thriller that manipulates audience perspective and throws twisted hallucinatory imagery at us for an hour. You can usually get a couple of pretty good jolts out of that; at its peak, it can sustain a whole movie right through any weak spots (see: Oculus, the Conjurings). The Bye Bye Man is a stew made from other movies, but assembled with dollar-store ingredients and microwaved to flavorless mush. What's disappointing is the degree to which you can feel it trying for significance in each arena, only to flop back in exhaustion and resignation. This is down to a whole bunch of reasons, all of which are liabilities in their own right and more than the sum of their parts when taken together, but none as ruinous as the tripartite vacuum at the center of the cast. I'll get to them in a bit, or as long as I can go without mentioning them.

This, I suppose, brings us to the story, which takes place mostly in two locations: a gigantic old rental house outside of Madison, Wisconsin, and what I presume to be the state university situated in the same city. The renters are three college students: Elliott (Douglas Smith), John (Lucien Laviscount), and Sasha (Cressida Bonas). The house is an imposing thing: seemingly located in a clearing in the middle of the woods, it’s cobbled together from three or four different mismatched architectural styles, and each room seems to contain at least one door that doesn’t seem to lead to anywhere. The property is advertised as fully furnished, but the house is bare when the renters move in, and all of the furniture seems to have migrated to the cramped and underlit basement. Walls and ceilings stretch up and away from the floor at not-quite-square angles.

It’s a positively ghastly place, and here I must give the filmmakers credit: they succeed in designing a set that feels at once realistic and unpleasantly surreal. Elliott, John, and Sasha don’t particularly take too well to this new house, and less so when Elliott looks in an old nightstand, finds a piece of paper scrawled with repetition of the phrases “Don’t think it; don’t say it”; positively echoing the actions of any right-thinking human being at this point, he keeps looking and finds a name scrawled into the wood: The Bye Bye Man.

He does not succeed in not thinking or saying the name, and soon odd apparitions begin to peek up out of the corners at odd moments: a half-door into the attic produces glinting eyes out of the darkness, a full-length cloak hanging on the wall seems to at times have a full-length man wearing it. Occasionally one of the three main characters will appear to be somewhere they shouldn’t be, or doing something they shouldn’t be doing. Sasha begins to fall mysteriously ill for reasons neither she (nor we, nor I suspect the filmmakers) understand.

As Elliott decides to delve deeper into the legend behind the one piece of writing he found, via Internet and dead files (leading to the first of the movie’s many unintentional howlers, a sequence where he uses a very Google-like search engine conspicuously named Search, types in "bye bye man," and yields zero results; I’m not certain any search engine would have ever turned up that kind of binary result, but it certainly wouldn’t happen in 2017), the Bye Bye Man himself starts to make appearances: tall, skinny, scarred, played by Doug Jones of Pan’s Labyrinth fame, and clad in what I swear to God is a thermal Henley under a Grim Reaper cloak from a Halloween-supply store. We must consider the idea that not every supernatural demon must be ancient and eternal; perhaps this is why he has an English name in modern vernacular.

Director Stacy Title conveys the early going in a way that’s surprisingly sinuous and low-key for a scantily-budgeted January release. There’s a point-of-view perspective that switches on and off through the exploration and initial discovery; it may have been a creative choice or the result of an editing-room salvo after a lack of coverage that day in production, but it pops up sporadically enough early on to slightly destabilize the viewer. And she holds shots longer than most, which is always a beneficial and suspenseful choice in a horror movie that’s built on not knowing when the routine is going to suddenly become the profane.

At least, it would be a beneficial and suspenseful choice, were just about every other element not working against it. Serious-minded horror requires silence and suspension of disbelief, and entrusts its success to the viewer participating in the honor system in that regard. Audience participation for one of these movies is a death sentence. And there has not been a horror movie in many a moon more inappropriately committed to its own seriousness than The Bye Bye Man: not a thing that happens here is new to the genre, and yet the screenplay and the direction takes each well-worn revelation with such ludicrously straight-faced resolve that we eventually succumb to mirth. Self-awareness is not in this movie’s DNA, nor subtlety, nor artful segues: I particularly consider an exchange about the Bye Bye Man’s history between Elliott and a far-too-sanguine librarian (Cleo King), in which we get the sense that they are comprehending the rationale behind the Bye Bye Man’s existence at roughly the same time as the screenwriter.

Still, though, what really pulls the rug out from underneath this particular enterprise is the absolute lack of ability the three main characters have in conveying the material. And while Smith and Laviscount are bad in earthly, human ways that frankly bore us, Bonas deserves special mention. Her character is required only to act concerned, or supernaturally sick, or confused, and there is scarcely a moment where she doesn’t visibly struggle like hell to put those emotions over and still fail hard at doing so. An “I-told-you-so” moment she has with Elliott mid-film is so divorced from natural intonation that it almost feels like a creative choice. Almost.

It’s hard to hate the movie, though. It’s long at 96 minutes, it has no idea how to let its characters convey any emotion naturally, it’s mostly unaware of how to architecture suspense, and we don’t get any sense of what anyone’s really thinking or feeling in any moment, including the Bye Bye Man himself; having said that, it’s so convinced that it’s telling a story of frightening import, and so innocently incompetent at doing so, that we’re tempted to come close to giving it a partial pass when it gets something right, like the long takes or a moment when it plays with shallow focus and lighting to suggest ominous things in the background, or the truly weird and unexpected intercuts of a train speeding along a track at night, or when a seasoned cast member comes along, like Faye Dunaway or Carrie-Anne Moss (in the movie for about as many scenes as the trailer suggests, but also responsible for the one scene that seems to be able to articulate one of the story’s points in a reasonably functional way) to momentarily give the flagging story some agency. The whole thing is still godawful, but it tried, and you kind of wish it’d have succeeded.

2 / 5