2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Douglas Smith, Doug Jones, Faye Dunaway, Carrie-Ann Moss, Leigh Whannell | directed by Stacy Title | 1hr 37mins |
How does one even approach a movie as baffling and fundamentally broken as The Bye Bye Man? With a titular villain that sounds like it was made up by a toddler and a tone that’s lacking in any self-awareness that it’s almost begging to be mocked from the outset. The most interesting thing I can say about it is that it somehow finds a different way to be bad. It isn’t just a bore (it is, with long stretches of flat characters doing nothing) and it isn’t so bad that it’s funny – it doesn’t have enough energy to must up that level of camp. Like a bad joke that hangs in the air, I felt embarrassed for everyone involved. The whole affair is cringing.
Certainly there were more laughable or enraging movies in 2017, from the misguided The Layover to the pompous indie The Dinner to the hilarious Wish Upon and The Snowman. The Bye Bye Man is neither of those things. It is broken, but I also said Star Wars: The Last Jedi was broken. Last Jedi had a broken structure that weighed down the film while other things in it still worked. The Bye Bye Man however is almost surgical in how incompetent it is. It seems to hone in on every single vein and piece of connective tissue that comes together to make a movie, finds it and snaps it in half. The script sounds like something that was assembled in the dark by separate groups that hated each other and then slapped it together without a single read through. The production so amateurish it is kind of amazing that anyone in this movie has been in other things, much less that director Stacy Title was able to get actors like Doug Jones, Carrie-Ann Moss and Faye Dunaway to be in this thing.
Moss plays the skeptical detective, Dunaway plays the expositional believer (a role cornered by Lin Shaye in bigger studio films) and Jones (always in makeup or motion capture) plays The Bye Bye Man himself, cinema’s lamest modern monster who looks a bit like the Strigoi vampires from The Strain. The story involves 3 friends, a couple and their lifelong friend, who move into an off campus house and – with the help of a medium – summon the spirit of The Bye Bye Man simply by saying or thinking his dumb name. This creature works like an omnipresent God and moves like a plague, presumably being stopped by refusing to say or think his name or – as in the movie’s opening – kill everyone who knows about him.
My theory is that one day someone had a song stuck in their head and while trying to get it out decided that would make a cool idea for a horror movie. How hard is it to keep from thinking something? How much harder would it be if that relentless earworm were actually dangerous? The problem is that the struggle to not think about something doesn’t exactly translate to something that can be portrayed on film.
From there the movie stacks on rules and mythology ad nauseam most of which either is useless to the story or completely contradicts itself. This creature (from who knows where)’s greatest weapon and motivation seems to be to get you to say his name long enough to pass on the curse, but he can also just as easily create elaborate hallucinations, making you see things that aren’t there or not see things that are there, or just whatever the movie needs at that minute. In addition to these hallucinations he eventually shows up in physical form with a goofy looking CGI Hell Hound (the invisible ones Supernatural brings to life with just sounds are, no joke, more convincing). You can tell he’s coming because you’ll start to hallucinate train lights (for some reason) and hear the sound of a train and the jingle of coins hitting the floor (for some reason). But why does he need to show up at all?
The first half of the film is torrentially dull, with Title focused on the 4 college kids and their relationships. The main guy, Elliott (Douglas Jones, whose been in other things) needs to lock down the out-of-his-league girlfriend while fighting feelings of both arrogance and insecurity. His older brother shows up to tell him to both living life in college and settling down. Meanwhile, The Bye By Man surfaces (because back in the 50s he made a guy go mad and carve his name in the drawer of the house the kids are now in), and this evil omnipresent creature spends days playing nothing more than hallucinatory pranks on these kids that does little more than put a cramp in their sex lives. He puts maggots in a girl’s hair like a teen bully in a sex comedy. Terrified yet?
The Bye Bye Man only has one gear: to scare. It isn’t fun or funny or ironic. It is serious as a heart attack. It gives itself no outs or trap doors if one thing isn’t working. When you look past the nonsense and PG-13 cut-aways of the kills truly terrible things are happening to these characters. One minute the tone is somber, the next Title has her actors dialing up the panic and mania to an embarrassing degree. Poor Jones screams, shakes and convulses in a fit of overacting that would make Annette Benning in American Beauty go “cool it, dude”. Among the movie’s most insane scenes involves Elliott driving in the middle of the night, now so manic from trying to keep himself from thinking of The Bye Bye Man’s name that he screams along with the car radio – and the only song on the radio is “Bye Bye Love” putting him 2/3rds of the way to doom.
You can also play Spot the Rip-Off. The film’s often repeated motto “Don’t Think it, Don’t Say It” is like any of the cutesy sayings out of any Stephen King novel, a man goes mad and writes it in spirals all over his home – I guess because spirals looked cool in Dark City. The general spirit spreading plague theme is out of The Ring and the earworm idea from the Chuck Palahiuk book Lullaby. There is a little Final Destination, a little Mothman Procphecies and quite a bit kids-fighting-their-natural instincts of Nightmare on Elm Street.
This isn’t me nitpicking the film’s logic. This is all that the movie is. Every line, every new revelation about the film’s mythology, every character relationship just collapses as it comes out. It’s myth-making and storytelling is so flustered and convoluted that if the movie where Doug Jones sitting on a stool reading the phone book for 90 minutes it would make fewer mistakes. The Bye Bye Man borders on The Room level of incompetence, where everything about it down to the studs, from concept to execution, begs questioning what was going on in the heads of the production. But The Bye Bye Man isn’t nearly as funny as The Room, falling in that no-man’s land chasm between weird and boring and then – poof – forgotten.