As I walked out of a screening of “The Bye Bye Man,” I wasn’t filled with a sense of dread, or even relief that the film was over. What I felt was pity — pity for the actors who were stuck on screen in this terrible film. I was sad that such a monstrosity had even been allowed to exist.
“The Bye Bye Man,” directed by Stacy Title (perhaps best known for “Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror”) and written by Jonathan Penner, stars Douglas Smith as Elliot. Elliot is a college student whose parents were killed in a car crash, so he’s supported by his older brother. His girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and friend John (Lucien Laviscount) decide to move into an off-campus house with him in a small Midwestern town. The film traffics in delusions from the start, as the house they’re moving into looks large enough to accommodate a fraternity from the outside, yet is a fraction of that size inside. The three students only take up two bedrooms, so why would they choose a house that appears to have so many more empty rooms? And how could three college students afford a place that large, even with reasonable Midwestern rents? These questions were far more perplexing than anything related to the movie’s frights. Like most modern horror films that need to find an explanation for why the characters can’t use cell phones to save themselves, “The Bye Bye Man” needs to explain how these characters could ever live in such a place.
The house is haunted (sort of) and there is a series of loud noises and doors that close mysteriously. These little jump scares lack imagination, and even the deafening booms on the soundtrack aren’t enough to make viewers jump. The slamming door has become a hackneyed effect in contemporary horror films. When Chekov said a gun shown early in a play must go off at some point, he meant that every element of a play must be necessary. “The Bye Bye Man” seems to have misinterpreted that rule and updated it: an open door in the background must slam closed shortly after it’s shown.
While exploring the house, Elliot finds a night stand with an invocation, “Don’t think it, don’t say it,” and the titular villain’s name, The Bye Bye Man. He starts to haunt anyone who learns his name, but the film never commits to even a rudimentary logic to explain his actions. At times The Bye Bye Man seems to be the ghost of some kind of serial killer, but he could also just be a purely supernatural force. The specter is accompanied by some kind of severely burned hound, but there’s no explanation for its presence. Is The Bye Bye Man trying to steal the souls of his victims, or just causing destruction and mayhem? The best horror monsters either have clear goals and motivations, or they’re simple enough not to require any explanation. They also don’t have names as puerile as The Bye Bye Man, which elicits more laughter than fright.
The film’s performances range from unconvincing to wildly overacted. Laviscount and Bonas are just dead-eyed mannequins—there’s never a sense that they’re human beings, or capable of beings friends or lovers with Elliot. And Smith’s performance devolves into a series of histrionics. His performance as the brainwashed son of a fundamentalist Mormon in “Big Love” was remarkably nuanced, but none of that subtlety made its way into “The Bye Bye Man.” He mostly spends the second half of the film worrying about various ways not to say the monster’s name and screaming at nothing.
The movie makes a last minute bid for respectability with the additions of Carrie-Anne Moss and Faye Dunaway, but it’s a wasted effort. Moss, who hasn’t made any films of note since the Matrix films and “Memento” in the early 2000s, plays a lifeless detective investigating the mysterious deaths surround Elliot. Faye Dunaway’s part is even less consequential. It’s a shame seeing someone who starred in films like “Chinatown” and won an Oscar for “Network” in dreck like this (although even her short scene is far more interesting than anything else going on).
The film’s look is as amateur as most of the acting. The compositions are pedestrian and the poor lighting makes the movie look like a bad episode of a network television show. There are also some quite obvious mistakes peppered throughout the film, the most hilarious being when Elliot goes in for a kiss with Sasha and somehow misses her mouth before course correcting. I’m fairly certain the filmmakers didn’t intend to make him look that awkward. Whether it’s a fault of a preoccupied editor or a director who didn’t do enough takes is unclear.
If “The Bye Bye Man” has anything going for it, it’s the possibility that the movie is forgettable enough to be erased from our culture memory with time. There have always been terrible horror films—it’s practically a hallmark of the genre that most of them will be reprehensible. But there’s something special about a movie as incompetent as this. The best way to approach the film is to take its own advice; if we don’t think about it and don’t talk about it, “The Bye Bye Man” will go away forever.
Watch the trailer below: