[Note: This post contains spoilers. Like it matters. Updated 2/1/17.]
The kindest thing that can be said of director Stacy Title’s staggeringly incompetent The Bye Bye Man is that it isn’t outright morally distasteful, unless one regards wasting 96 minutes of the viewer’s life to be an act of malevolence. Perhaps that’s an exceedingly low bar for a horror film to clear, but given the curious strain of racism in the features that the genre produced last year—looking in your direction, The Forest, The Darkness, and The Other Side of the Door—it’s what passes for a compliment these days. So let it be known that The Bye Bye Man does not elicit a longing to crawl home and take a scalding shower to rinse away the ickiness. Kudos to Title for that. However, The Bye Bye Man is a terrible, terrible film, in almost every way that a film can be terrible. It scores a 9.7 in the Shitty Horror Movie Olympics.
Where to begin? The story concerns three Wisconsin college students: brooding scholar Elliot (Douglas Smith, who is 31 fucking years old), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and his childhood friend, the model-handsome jock John (Lucien Laviscount). (John is African-American, a fact that would be refreshingly immaterial, were it not for screenwriter Jonathan Penner’s embarrassing conception of “how black people talk.”) One can tell that Elliot is brooding, incidentally, because he wears Joy Division and Violent Femmes T-shirts. It’s that kind of film. Anyway, the trio attend an anonymous community college that is unconvincingly pretending to be an esteemed university, and they are accordingly eager to move into off-campus housing. The furnished, slightly run-down house that they have just leased is massive enough to shelter an entire sorority, but apparently the rent is so dirt-cheap that three full-time students can afford to live there all by themselves. Perhaps this should have been a red flag that the property has unforeseen problems, but then again, Elliot, Sasha, and John—and this is essential to the plot of The Bye Bye Man—are morons.
Shortly after the trio get settled into their new digs, Elliot discovers that the inside of his nightstand drawer is covered with a repeating, scrawled message—DON’T THINK IT, DON’T SAY IT—and hidden underneath that are four words carved in the wood: THE BYE BYE MAN. This odd phrase sticks in Elliot's mind, supplemented by several strange phenomena that have been occurring around the house. Later, Sasha calls on her “psychic” goth girl classmate Kim (Jenna Kanell) to cleanse the house of unfriendly spirits, and in the ad hoc séance that follows, Elliot blurts out the Bye Bye Man’s name almost without thinking. This is Bad News, as simply speaking the words are sufficient to attract the malicious attention of the so-named spirit. This entity assumes the form of a waxen, hairless figure garbed in a black, hooded robe and attended by a ghastly, demonic hound. Over the following days, the Bye Bye Man plagues Elliot, Sasha, John, and Kim with vivid, terrifying hallucinations, eventually driving the fear-addled foursome to commit fatal blunders. Even as they are enduring the creature’s mind games, the victims struggle against the compulsion to name their foe out loud, as to do so would spread the psychic contagion of the Bye Bye Man to anyone who is listening.
This is an absurdly generous nickel summary of the The Bye Bye Man’s plot, which is so haphazardly assembled it’s challenging to parse what the living hell is happening at any given time. The film’s flaws are legion, but this narrative confusion is what makes it a fundamentally broken work of cinema. To be clear, the film’s essential failing is not the seizure-inducing intra-scene spatial unintelligibility of, say, a Michael Bay feature, but rather a maddening inter-scene incoherence comparable to listening to an utterly shit-faced drunk attempting (and failing) to tell an anecdote. Each scene is like a daft pocket reality with its own rules and stakes, possessing no particular dramatic relationship to the scenes that precede and follow it. The characters talk about things, but there’s not much incentive to pay attention, given that what they say will often be forgotten or contradicted in five or ten minutes.
Underneath the rank, suffocating stupidity of The Bye Bye Man, there’s a seed that could have made for an engaging horror feature. The film’s origin is surprisingly offbeat: Adapted from a non-fiction story by Robert Damon Schneck, a Fortean Times contributor and folklorist of Weird America, the story is based on a real-world urban legend that Schneck first encountered in Wisconsin. Even if The Bye Bye Man’s conceit isn’t completely original—it’s a hybrid of elements from Candyman, The Ring, Pontypool, and It Follows—there’s still something undeniably intriguing about a horror myth built around the white bear problem. Likewise, the concept of a name with dark magical power spreading into the world memetically has a certain primeval-meets-modern appeal. (This makes it doubly weird that the film conspicuously omits any reference to social media. Perhaps it’s just that the script doesn’t want to concede that the whole edifice falls apart if one of the characters were to talk about their plight on Facebook, thus unleashing the Bye Bye Man on the whole world.)
At least as presented in the film, the titular monster is a question mark, a devouring void of nondescript non-menace. By the time the end credits roll, the viewer still has no clue who or what the Bye Bye Man is, or what exactly his motivations, abilities, weaknesses, or backstory might be. Mostly he just stands around and points threateningly at people. Given that the film offers virtually no exposition (shown or told) about its villain, the specifics of the Bye Bye Man's design feel ridiculously arbitrary, as if they were written on slips of paper and drawn out of a hat. Why does he toss around antique gold coins? Why is his arrival preceded by the sound of a speeding train? Why is his companion a skinless monster dog? Why anything? (One is reminded of Crow T. Robot on Mystery Science Theater 3000, remarking on the randomness of the oversized kneecaps on Torgo, the greasy caretaker of Manos: The Hands of Fate: “How long did that decision take the director, a tenth of a second? ‘Big knees?! Fine, let’s go with it!’”)
The Bye Bye Man bedevils his victims with phantasmal trickery, but the limitations on this power, and what he intends to achieve by using it, seem to shift from scene to scene. His apparent goal is sometimes to provoke panicked mishaps, sometimes to set the characters at each other’ throats, and sometimes just to screw with their heads for his own amusement. Some of the illusions he generates make not a lick of sense—such as when Elliot has a five second hallucination that the old woman (Faye Dunaway) standing in front of him has accidentally set herself ablaze. Why? What does this accomplish? Who knows?
Oh, yeah: Faye fucking Dunaway is in this film.
After it becomes apparent to the characters that the Bye Bye Man can twist their senses in any way he pleases, they develop a curious amnesia about that fact. Like the not-so-bright cohort of rats in psychological experiment, they keep grabbing the food pellet and getting shocked every time. In what is perhaps the film’s most unintentionally comical scene, Kim spies from Elliot’s moving car what appears to be a bloody auto accident near a railroad crossing. She leaps from the car and runs directly towards the scene, shrieking “WE HAVE TO HELP THEM!!” Bear in mind, at this point, Kim knows full well that the Bye Bye Man is capable of making her see things. Elliot gives chase, shouting (correctly) that there is no car crash, that it’s a supernatural trick. Kim disregards his warnings and dashes right into the path of an oncoming train. It’s neither scary, sad, nor shocking—just ridiculous.
(There are so many inanities just in this one scene. Why doesn’t the Bye Bye Man at least compel Elliot to hallucinate the same scene, so that he is less likely to discern the trap and warn Kim? Why does Kim sprint directly towards a horrible traffic accident to “help,” instead of first pulling out her phone and calling 911? Why should the viewer give a shit whether Kim dies when it’s literally just been revealed that she has bludgeoned her roommate to death with a hammer and intends to do likewise with Eillot, Sasha, and John? For that matter, why would she take a break in the middle of her killing spree to be a Good Samaritan? Every scene in the film elicits questions like these.)
Virtually every performance is direct-to-DVD wretched, even Dunaway’s, but the worst offenders are Bonas and Smith. Bonas seems unable to deliver a single line convincingly, which gives John’s contention that Sasha is a “perfect woman” the stench of laughable delusion: She can’t even speak like the hu-mans do, for goodness’ sake. (The queasy, shuddering discomfort that Bonas exhibits when she is obliged to say “I love you” to Smith is an early contender for Worst Line Reading of 2017.) Smith, meanwhile, compensates for his feeble presence by playing things irritatingly over-the-top: sobbing piteously, wailing in anguish, throwing little tantrums, and gawking in goggle-eyed terror at one thing after another. The only poor soul to emerge with their dignity (mostly) unscathed is Carrie-Anne Moss, who shows up briefly as a police detective, delivers her dreadful lines with her usual steely self-possession, and then vanishes. (Alas, The Bye Bye Man will live forever as a humiliating mark of Cain on Moss’ IMDb page.)
There’s no camp enjoyment to be wrung from the The Bye Bye Man. The film is far too dreary, too aggravating in its brainlessness, and too earnest about cockamamie premises that it never bothers to explicate properly. There are a substantial number of perplexing digressions and eccentric flourishes in the film—such as an abandoned subplot about Mike suffering from erectile dysfunction—but not enough to propel it over the line that divides plain old crap from a mesmeric fever-dream of awfulness like The Room.
It’s hard to say exactly where things went so wrong in this sort of cinematic fiasco, but much of it unquestionably lies with the direction and screenplay, both of which are unspeakably ill-conceived and slapdash. The collaboration between Title and Penner, who are married, has spawned a mess that bears only a passing resemblance to a horror film. It’s tempting to blame editor Ken Blackwell for some of The Bye Bye Man’s incoherence, but in this case that feels a bit like blaming a chef for making a terrible meal out of the pea gravel and drywall screws provided to them. Mostly, however, one is inclined to direct an accusing finger at the producers and distributors, who looked at the debacle that is The Bye Bye Man and decreed that it deserved a wide national release. Creators fail all the time, even brilliant ones, and it’s certainly no sin to fail. What’s unforgivable is giving one’s seal of approval to a failure this dire and sending it out into the world.