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