The Bye Bye Man (2017) dir. Stacey Title.
Written: Jonathan Penner.
Starring: Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas, Doug Jones.
CWs: Eye injury, suicide.
When I last spoke and thought of The Bye Bye Man, I predicted that it would be an uninspired patchwork of horror’s “greatest hits” of the last seven years or so. To put it bluntly, I was right. If I could summarize the experience of watching The Bye Bye Man in a theater, enduring its PG-13 parade of shocks and scares, it would be that it’s one of those movies that makes you wish you were watching the movies it reminds you of instead. Everything it does you’ve seen before, and it was all done better by whatever it’s shamelessly stealing from. For all of its unoriginality and mediocrity, though, I must concede this: it’s extremely entertaining.
Actually, let me rephrase. When I say “entertaining,” I don’t think that’s actually a quality of the movie itself. The Bye Bye Man is more like an extremely potent catalyst for making your own entertainment. The movie completely fails on so much of what it wants or intends to do, but in doing so, sets up joke after joke at its own expense. It’s almost impossible to not want to whisper to your friend or fellow audience member about how a character running frantically away from something is trying to escape the movie. In most cases, a theater full of chit-chat can be a very understandable annoyance, but I kid you not: my entire opening-night theater was packed with people who paid full ticket price and more just to mock this film.
It’s unfortunate (for the film) that it’s become a big joke, but I don’t blame the wannabe RiffTrax commentators in the audience, because it’s not like there was anything in the movie to get seriously invested in. The script is a laughable mess. Three college students – Elliott (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and their friend John (Lucien Laviscount) – move into a ~creeEEEeeeEEEeeepy~ house and get exposed to knowledge of the titular monster (Doug Jones). Don’t think his name and it’ll slow him down, don’t say his name and it’ll keep others safe. Unfortunately, the only way to save yourself and anyone you’ve told about the Bye Bye Man is through death. This part of the mythology is introduced right away with the film’s admittedly great opening scene, but once you get to the nuts and bolts of the Bye Bye Man mythos, it collapses like a bad soufflé.
First, some examples: In Nightmare on Elm Street, we eventually learn that Freddy Kreuger was a child killer and his spirit is the result of some gruesome vigilante justice. In Halloween, we know from the beginning of the movie that Michael Myers is an escaped patient of Smith’s Grove Sanitarium. And most haunted house movies give some kind of explanation as to why there’s some particular ghost inside some particular house. Horror movies thrive on airs of mystery, but without at least basic exposition about the nature of a threat, you get confusion instead of curiosity.
What makes The Bye Bye Man so benumbing, then, is that it tells us virtually nothing about its own monster. He uses hallucinations to trick his victims into hurting themselves and others, but it’s never demonstrated whether The Bye Bye Man himself is a corporeal manifestation or not (to mention Nightmare again, Freddy is invisible to all but the dreamer unless he’s pulled out of the dream). He’s accompanied by a poorly rendered hellhound whose reason for associating with the Bye Bye Man is never explained, but it lurks around more than he does and eats the victims’ bodies after they’re dead. Another trick that the Bye Bye Man likes to pull is emerging from long coats hanging on walls like The Babadook, but he does it in so many places that I’m unsure if he disguises himself as the coat itself, or if he comes through them like closet doors in Monsters Inc. and this whole town just has very similar taste in coats and where to hang them. The sounds of a flipped coin or a train horn apparently herald his arrival, but why? What’s the connection? The Bye Bye Man has literally no backstory. There’s no origin presented in this movie, no tragic transformation is shown from mortal man to ghostly reaper. There’s nothing. The Bye Bye Man simply is, or in other words, he’s simply boring. The tagline is “don’t think it,” but The Bye Bye Man really needed more thought put into his character.
So The Bye Bye Man, as both a movie and a character, is half-baked, but the half we did get isn’t even any good. Elliott, our main character, is needlessly confrontational about the strangest things and is nowhere near likable enough to carry the movie. Even in films with “unlikable” protagonists, they have at least some likable qualities that allow us to care about their journey. Elliott sucks to his core, and his roommates aren’t much fun, either. And you hate them even more because their bad acting makes the bad script worse. Faye Dunaway and Carrie Ann Moss somehow got roped into the supporting cast of this mess, and they work through their terrible dialogue the best that they can, but Cleo King as the college librarian steals the show for all the wrong reasons.
If I could give a play-by-play of all the things wrong with The Bye Bye Man, I would, but I can’t because I’d collapse from exhaustion before covering even half of its flaws. Not only is The Bye Bye Man insipidly uninspired, its PG-13 rating is a twist of the studio-mandated knife that gutted it of any viscerality it could have had. Lots of coulds with this movie. They could have explained The Bye Bye Man more, because for how hard they pushed the dangers of knowing his name in the promotional material and film itself, he’s egregiously enigmatic. They could have spent more time on the Bye Bye Man’s hellhound, because Resident Evil could make a scarier one with a fraction of the polygons. They could have had better actors, a better script, a better plot, better cinematography, and better direction, but all of that means it just could have been a better movie. A much, much better movie. I’m at least pleasantly surprised that it was as fun of a watch as it was, so if you do decide to say hello to The Bye Bye Man, bring friends. And maybe alcohol. One star out of five.
When writing a review, I try not to describe the whole film scene by scene. To that end, that means that there are sometimes stray observations, specific reactions, and noted reflections that just can’t make it into the review proper, for the sake of either efficiency or avoiding spoilers. That said, a spoiler alert is in full effect for the various hot takes listed below.
- The scene where The Bye Bye Man stalks Elliott in the library is more funny to me than I think it had any right to be. The way he’s just sitting there, not even menacingly, more like…confusedly, as if he just sat up because he lost track of time while studying for pre-calc. It’s also funny to imagine that he’s not teleporting, but running really fast to the next table whenever Elliott closes his eyes.
- Another funny moment: as Elliott races home to confront the Bye Bye Man, he blasts “Bye Bye Love” on his stereo. It was so overt and heavy-handed that I almost cried laughing.
- I don’t think it can possibly stressed enough how terrible the Bye Bye Man’s CGI canine looks. It makes Sharktopus look good.
- There’s a lot that I really appreciate about The Bye Bye Man’s thematic intent. I like the idea of a memetically transferred demon, and the Bye Bye Man is a functional hybrid of the tape from The Ring and Candyman. There’s also some racial subtext; the virility of the black John coexisting with Sasha clearly makes Elliott paranoid, but it may take someone better equipped than I to dive into this dumpster for an ideological assessment of race relations and The Bye Bye Man.
- I wonder why they paid so much to get Doug Jones as the Bye Bye Man when all he does is stand around and point. Jones is one of the most talented creature actors of our time, and he’s capable of injecting so much life and personality into any monster you make of him. The Bye Bye Man is so bland and lacking character that Jones feels wasted here.
- The opening scene where the news reporter (Leigh Whannell) guns down his family and neighbors to protect them from The Bye Bye Man is good. It’s very good. However, it has a flaw that review after review has already eviscerated but is so bad that it’s worth ripping into here: in real life, shooting someone point-blank with a shotgun will cause their bellies to blow open. But in PG-13 land, you’ll just fly into a wall and leave a bloodless dent. It’s leaves jarringly little impact and ruins what could have been a genuinely shocking moment.
- The film’s best scare is fairly early on, when the Bye Bye Man materializes in the shadows behind an unaware Elliott. You may recognize this scene from Halloween, when Myers appears behind Laurie Strode near the stairs. It’s almost a frame-perfect recreation. It’s still scary, but it happens so early in them movie that there’s no weight to it. The Bye Bye Man’s biggest structural flaw? Impatience.
- Elliott is unpleasant and John is one-dimensional, but Sasha is disappointingly underdeveloped, even for this movie. She doesn’t have any kind of character traits, she just exists and does things and her dialogue is mostly limited to announcing the things she’s doing. Her role in the story is that of a a sickly mannequin for Elliott to loom possessively over.
- I’m actually very interested in whether there will be a director’s cut available for this film or not. There was very clearly a lot left on the cutting room floor – maybe the Bye Bye Man’s backstory? – and a lot of trailer footage is missing from the final film. The hellhound looks so bad that I’m certain it was a last-minute addition. Even if the director’s original vision wasn’t that good either, I’d really like to see what The Bye Bye Man was like before the studio got their mitts on it.