Written by: Jonathan Penner (screenplay), Robert Damon Schneck (based on "The Bridge to Body Island")
Directed by: Stacey Title
Starring: Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, and Cressida Bonas
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Don’t think it, don't say it."
When will audiences meet the next horror icon? While several successful franchises have popped up during the past two decades, they’ve either involved faceless entities (Final Destination, Paranormal Activity, Blair Witch) or legacy roles with multiple characters assuming the mantle (Scream, Saw). A few cult contenders—like Mick Taylor from Wolf Creek or Victor Crowley from the Hatchet films—have made a stab, but it’s hard to consider them truly iconic. By my own (and my helpful Twitter feed’s) reckoning, the closest characters approaching iconic status are Sadako/Samara, Annabelle (who’s only appeared in one movie and started life as more of a mascot for The Conjuring) and possibly Bughuul.
What I’m saying is that it’s been a long time, and we’re certainly far removed from those bygone days that churned out multiple fiends that went onto cinematic immortality. It’s a topic that’s been on my mind ever since laying eyes on the trailer for The Bye Bye Man, a ludicrous title that nonetheless still feels like a genuine attempt to craft a new, memorable horror villain (there is certainly no forgetting that damn name, that’s for sure). Only time will tell how this latest boogeyman will fare, but if his first outing is any indication, it’ll be a bit of an uphill climb.
I say this not because it’s a completely terrible, inauspicious debut but rather because the whole thing is so very, very silly (and it’s exceedingly rare to make a franchise out of silliness, Critters and Leprechaun notwithstanding). In theory, the foundation’s solid enough, with the story rooted in the stuff of urban myths a grisly backstory beginning in 1969, when a deranged man (Leigh Whannel) murders a slew of people and commits suicide, all while babbling incoherently about a name that can’t be mention. Several decades later, a group of college students have moved into the site of the gruesome massacre, though it is decidedly happy times: this is the first time that Elliot (Douglas Smith) has lived on his own, and he’s shacking up with his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and best friend John (Lucien Laviscount).
Just about the only bummer is that his place is creepy as hell, a fact that’s immediately noticeable to Sasha—so much so that she invites a “psychic sensitive” friend over to perform a séance. Believe it or not, this clichéd, stupid act doesn’t even summon the titular Bye Bye Man: instead, Eliot finds the name scrawled on the inside of a nightstand along with an ominous warning: “don’t think it, don’t say it.” (Gee, maybe it’d be easier if you didn’t write the name right there for someone to find.) Sure enough, this is enough to conjure up the boogeyman, a malevolent spirit with reality-warping abilities that spreads by word of mouth.
Completely ridiculous name aside, this isn’t the worst idea for a horror villain. It’s almost as if someone took the idea behind Freddy Krueger—“everyone dreams!”—and wondered aloud what it would be like to have a villain that’s even more inescapable. There’s something genuinely terrifying about a demon that literally manifests in the mind: it’s almost a given that the more you try not to think of something, the opposite actually happens. As soon as you name-drop this guy, you’re fucked. What’s more, the largely unseen spirit delights in toying with his victims by preying on their inner fears before essentially having them do his dirty work by killing off everyone they love, which I guess makes him one of the lazier slasher villains imaginable (or a half-assed rip-off of Bughuul himself—the more I think about it, the more I realize just how much this movie feels like a dumber version of Sinister).
Suffice it to say this solid premise is undermined at nearly every turn, though. A few effectively moody shots of the Bye Bye Man lingering in the background and some ominous build-up (characters hearing strange noises and discovering mysterious scratch marks) faintly hint at the possibility of a straight-laced, serious-minded take on The Bye Bye Man. A movie with that title can only be so serious, though, and this one quickly degenerates into an unhinged hoot: when Eliot asks Sasha if she “wants to watch something stupid” in an early scene, it’s a question that might as well be posed to an audience that’s about to spend more time giggling than it is screaming. Well, at least I spent most of my time howling through The Bye Bye Man, in all its braindead glory.
This is a movie that’s dumb in a specific, precious way, filled with terrifically bad flourishes both big and small. You have your usual litany of problems that are so wildly awful that they become more of a boon: we’re perhaps used to feeble acting in this sort of thing, but I swear that this movie features people who can’t even cough or sneeze convincingly. Nearly every interaction is overblown to the point of absurdity, and Smith eventually has a fit of insanity that will likely be infamous—if not legendary—someday. The dialogue ranges from predicable clichés to ridiculous non-sequiturs (“girls who wear hats inside are weird,” Eliot proclaims as if it’s a matter of fact), leaving you constantly wondering if anyone involved has actually observed real human interactions.
As is often the case with gonzo horror, it’s the slightly unreal, off-kilter quality flowing through even the most mundane moments that makes The Bye Bye Man feel so weird. You’ll be able to lob many criticisms in its directions, but I don’t know if “generic” will be one of them—there’s something genuinely off about this one that makes it memorable in a way a lot of studio horror cast-offs aren’t. Subtle stuff, like the peculiar dimensions of the house’s room and some odd framing decisions, work in concert with the strange character dynamics to put everything just left-of-center. It’s cockeyed as hell—honestly, from the moment the Bye Bye Man’s demonic CGI dog (yes, that is correct) peeked its head out of a doorway, I knew this one wasn’t going to be your typical disposable horror offering. (Some mild spoilers ahead from this point on.)
I mean, how many movies climax with an out-of-nowhere Faye Dunaway handing the protagonist a gun and imploring them to kill themselves? There are some real whoppers strewn throughout The Bye Bye Man, though it probably still needs a few more to really ascend into that rarefied air of truly bonkers material. More often than not, it’s mostly just full of dumb characters making dumb decisions, all while it telegraphs its biggest “shocks” (when Eliot spends the entire movie fretting over his girlfriend cheating on him with his best friend, it’s not that hard to figure out how this shit is going to end). Among my favorite bits is Eliot’s sudden burst of inspiration when attempting to rid himself of the Bye Bye Man: since he summoned him from the nightstand in the first place, it stands to reason that disposing of it might be of use. Rather than do what any reasonable person might do—like burn or demolish it—he casually chucks it out into the woods, where anyone could stumble upon it and learn the Bye Bye Man's name.
As the film inched towards its conclusion, I was hoping that particular bit would come back to haunt everyone in the most insane way possible. I won’t spoil it, but the film does tease the truly bleak possibility…before promptly pulling what would be its most insane punch. It’s really too bad because there are brief glimpses that everyone involved knows what they’re up to, so it’s disappointing that they refuse to go out on what would have been a pretty insane note. Other than that, though, I have to believe that just about everyone was in on a gag: I mean, there’s a guy who owns a flower shop named “Mr. Daisy” (only Mr. Exposition would have been more on the nose), and, at one point, Eliot plucks a file that’s numbered 69 (you can practically hear the screenwriters giggling). One of the more confounding moments involves an exaggerated wink between characters that might as well be aimed directly at the audience. And, again, they named their terrifying horror villain the fucking Bye Bye Man. You cannot convince me this whole thing wasn’t a gag that somehow gained traction and got made.
To that end, The Bye Bye Man himself feels like a character that was made up as everyone went along. Director Stacey Title admirably keeps him cloaked in shadows, while Doug Jones infuses him with a slinky, enigmatic presence accented by ghoulish makeup that gives a bit of a Slenderman vibe that might make him a hit with the kids. What you don’t have is any extensive backstory: all I know about the Bye Bye Man is that he has a thing for coins and trains, neither of which is explained. Oh, and I suppose he’s also the only horror villain to have his own (awful and hilarious-looking) dog. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing: on the one hand, it’s nice not to have the lid completely blown off of a horror villain, but, on the other, he kind of feels like a dollar store bootleg version of Candyman.
That’s hardly the most promising way to describe a character, especially in terms of any future prospects. Only box office receipts will tell if this is the last time we glimpse the Bye Bye Man. The studio’s decision to cut it down to a PG-13 rating might boost those prospects, albeit at the expense of the film itself. Though The Bye Bye Man does stretch the rating with a few gory shots, I imagine the original, more splatter-filled cut would be a bit more rollicking. But that would also mean drawing in less teenagers to the theaters, and if there were any movie ever aimed directly at the younger end of that spectrum, it’s something titled The Bye Bye Man. It’s just kind of gruesome enough to feel forbidden at that age group, and there’s also just enough jolts to make the uninitiated jump in their seats.
I know we’re supposed to bemoan this kind of teeny bopper horror, but this generation could do worse than The Bye Bye Man, a film that at least bothers to stand out amongst more formulaic studio fare—even if I’m not completely sure it does so for the right reasons (or even if it does it on purpose). Of course, the only way to know for sure would be to follow up with the sequel teased in the final moments here. Truly, the only thing more ridiculous than a movie named The Bye Bye Man would be a movie named The Bye Bye Man 2.
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