Lets not beat around the bush: Stacey Title’s “The Bye Bye Man” is a bad horror movie and it’s one that you could easily pick apart until there’s nothing but a few scattered bones and viscera left. But it’s also a low budget picture made by mostly unknowns and there are good ideas in it that might have made for a solid piece of early-in-the-year horror. On top of that, through its badness, “The Bye Bye Man” turns into a fun watch.
Three college students, Elliot (Douglas Smith), his childhood buddy John (Lucien Laviscount) and his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) decide to rent an old creepy house off campus. One night, the trio accidentally awakens The Bye Bye Man (through a séance of course! Can we retire the séance from horror cinema please?), a mysterious supernatural being that comes when you say his name and think about him. So your only hope is to not say his name and not think about him. “Don’t say it. Don’t think it,” our trio is advised to tell themselves. But wait. By saying “don’t think it” aren’t you thinking of it? And since you’ve already heard the name and said it isn’t it automatically ingrained in your psyche?
OK … scratch the “hope” part. You’re totally screwed.
Aside from that, “The Bye Bye Man” has a solidly terrifying premise/antagonist reminiscent of “The Candyman,” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” as well as Mike Flanegan’s recent horror picture “Oculus.” The Bye Bye Man enacts intense torment through psychological distortion and trickery. Characters see things that aren’t there, hear things that aren’t there and do horrible things they don’t remember. All of this results in a few tense, slow burn horror sequences that wisely avoid cheap jump scares.
I also like that the film mostly preserves the mystery behind Bye Bye Man’s origin. There’s no “research montage” wherein the characters conveniently unearth a ton of historical documents via Google, nor do they consult an old and wise paranormal or mythological expert (played by Lin Shaye, probably). The Bye Bye Man is simply this otherworldly being that gets into your head and slowly drives you mad. Works for me.
So then what’s the problem? The picture’s decent premise is ultimately overshadowed by shoddy execution.
The screenplay by Jonathan Penner is a clunky mess, chocked full of awkward, unintentionally hilarious lines of dialogue that continually undermine the film’s attempts at serious terror: “It’s hard to get scared in the middle of the day,” “don’t worry…it [a house fire] can’t hurt him now.” I wish I could provide more context for the later comment but it comes at the end.
Furthermore, Penner’s script may not provide background on The Bye Bye Man but it does include multiple scenes wherein the characters blatantly explain the plot and/or suddenly become well versed in The Bye Bye Man’s tactics. During one scene, after Elliot goes to his school’s library and unearths one measly “dead file” concerning an incident involving Mr. Bye Bye, he gets into a conversation with the librarian (who’s never heard of him) and before long both are talking as if they’re Bye Bye Man scholars (which would be a disastrous profession to pursue, by the way). It’s the classic: “we figured this out because the screenwriter told us!” syndrome.
It also doesn’t help that the acting from our central trio is for the most part painfully bad, ranging from stilted and strained (the actors’ tongues practically tripping over their lines) to hysterically over the top. It’s a shame because you can tell these kids are trying as hard as they can. Bonas is particularly bad—her delivery of the line: “It’s hard to get scared in the middle of the day” is so flat and affected that I laughed for about a minute straight. You’re simply unable to connect or sympathize with these doomed college students because the acting constantly distracts you. Even their attempts at intentional comedic banter near the beginning feels forced.
“The Bye Bye Man” gets more unstable and convoluted as it goes along; its internal logic begins to crumble (how did that house fire start? How did the librarian end up on that deserted highway?), Bye Bye Man’s abilities become increasingly erratic and incoherent-- he can basically do… well, anything. Meanwhile character decisions/motivations on the part of our doomed trio go from shaky to just plain nonsensical. Additionally, the editing by Ken Blackwell is noticeably choppy, adding confusion. There are scenes that end too abruptly as if the studio came in at the last minute and forced Blackwell to quickly and carelessly snip scenes to make the film just over ninety minutes.
And yet, I was never bored during “The Bye Bye Man.” It gets to a point, after the film has long collapsed into unintentional lunacy, where I started to embrace the badness. I sat eagerly in my seat, waiting for the next stupid line of dialogue or absurd scene and laughing along in giddy delight. This may not have been the reaction Title and Penner were looking for but in the end entertainment value is entertainment value. I had a mildly good time.