The PG-13 horror movie is an oft-maligned breed of horror film – often offering more bumps in the dark than actual scares. Ever so often, films like The Ring and Insidious remind us that real terror can exist at the more permissive rating, but for each The Sixth Sense, there are a dozen cheap, schlocky messes with goals no higher than lifting the butts of twelve year olds a few inches off their seats. Well, evidently the crowded field of second-rate wannabe horror icons had enough room for The Bye Bye Man.
The plot of The Bye Bye Man plays like a paint by numbers of familiar horror tropes. Feel free to count along. Our protagonists, Elliot (Douglas Smith, Ouija), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and best friend John (Lucien Laviscount, Scream Queens), weary of the dorm life, move into a creepy old house on the edge of town, complete with ever appearing gold coins, and a nightstand with the words The Bye Bye Man carved into the drawer beneath a warning – ” Don’t say it. Don’t think it.” When Sasha begins to feel strange about the house, she enlists the help of her friend, Kim (Jenna Kanell) to perform a house cleansing. Ever the skeptic, Elliot convinces Kim to hold a séance where she senses a presence that Elliot identifies as The Bye Bye Man.
If the setup feels familiar, it’s likely because you’ve seen at least one movie with at least one of those setups. But plenty of successful horror films are based on familiar premises – what truly matters is how you subvert expectations in the execution of that idea. Sadly, The Bye Bye Man fails to spin up any new or compelling dimension for their half-baked boogeyman, turning him into a charmless shadow of Freddy Krueger, who feeds of fear and the mention of his name – or something like that. The rules The Bye Bye Man abides by are vague at best, which is one of the film’s biggest problems. You’re never exactly aware of what the threat to these characters is. Freddy Krueger scares you and kills you in your sleep. Jason Voorhees kills you if you have sex or do drugs. Samara kills you seven days after you watch her video. If you think or say The Bye Bye Man’s name… shenanigans ensue.
Based on a chapter of Robert Damon Schneck’s book The President’s Vampire, the script by Jonathan Penner (Let the Devil Wear Black) rips a few pages from the intro to psychology textbook to build its core conflict. If knowing The Bye Bye Man’s name draws him out, to get rid of him, all you need to do is erase all mention of his name – and kill everyone who’s heard it. What’s unclear is whether this is the way to thwart The Bye Bye Man, or if its The Bye Bye Man’s intention all along. The whole thing is muddled, confusing, and quite frankly, not worth examining.
The Bye Bye Man marks director Stacy Title’s first film in 11 years, since Hood of Horror. It’s a strange film to return from a decade’s long hiatus, since The Bye Bye Man feels more like a film meant to pad a studio’s lineup than any kind of passion project. The performances by the three leads are serviceable at best, with Laviscount showing little interest in elevating his character beyond the standard sex-driven jock, and Bonas, in her feature film debut, has very little to do. Mostly this is Douglas Smith’s show, who is not exactly the stuff leading men are made of, but oscillates admirably from one stage of mania to another.
The film attempts to lend itself an air of legitimacy with a respectable supporting cast, including Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix), and Leigh Whannell of Saw and Insidious fame, but both have neither a great deal of screentime nor a great deal of character with which to fill that time. Perhaps most criminally underused is Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth), as The Bye Bye Man himself. Over his career, Jones has shown himself to be singularly talented at emoting through layers and layers of prosthetics and makeup, making him an ideal choice for a titular movie monster. But there’s very little genuine menace to The Bye Bye Man, and even less for him to do. Mostly he just stands around in a hood next to his pathetically fake looking CGI demon dog.
The film is shot competently by James Kniest (Hush) and edited by Ken Blackwell (Ouija) who employs all the standard horror tricks. The film is scored by the Newton Brothers who have provide the same tonal backdrop that’s become familiar over their last several films – Hush, Ouija, Oculus. It helps rustle up the film’s mood, but feels interchangeable with a number of other horror scores. It all adds up to a horror film that looks like a horror film. No one’s taking risks here, leaving a film that feels safe, familiar, and a little lame, which I suppose in a movie called The Bye Bye Man, is to be expected.
Verdict: 1 out of 5
The Bye Bye Man indulges in every bad impulse today’s horror movies are maligned for. At its best, the film is unintentionally funny, but it never quite grasps its own absurdity enough to make it fun to watch. Instead, its a somber, dreary affair punctuated by jump scares that aren’t scaring, and a twisted plot that’s not worth untangling. The film’s ending, like most horror films, leaves room for an inevitable sequel, a possibility given the film’s relatively meager budget, but I think it’s best to let this would-be franchise go unplumbed. There’s nothing to see here you can’t find better elsewhere. Unlike this film’s unlucky heroes, I don’t suspect audiences will have much trouble forgetting The Bye Bye Man.