One of my favorite things in recent years is how movies have transitioned into using iPhones onscreen, but still have that wall-phone hang-up sound when the person on the other end’s ended the conversation or been cut off. This is a phenomenon that perhaps perfectly embodies what Stacy Title’s The Bye Bye Man (2017) is. Coming off of Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror (2006), a movie I had completely forgotten existed even though I saw it, Title has given us another confused, stuck-in-the-early-2000’s spook-fest that encourages being high with your friends before watching.
Opening with one of the most uninteresting ways to introduce a concept, The Bye Bye Man is the story of a spook-master entity based on multiple different campfire stories that comes to you (in legend, not in movie, by train) with his hellhound if you ever speak or think his name. Then he kills you. This is already an iffy concept to begin with; I could’ve been four years old and thought of a dude named the Bye Bye Man and killed my family with a knife for doing so, because that’s another thing he does; makes people kill their friends so that he does none of the work. But does that make sense? Do I have to think about the actual concept of the Bye Bye Man for him to show up at my doorstep, or do I just think of the words in that order?
Apparently it’s the latter, because when college student Elliot (Douglas Smith) moves into an off-campus house with his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and best friend John (Lucien Laviscount), he makes the mistake of peeling back the paper in a drawer and merely sees the name to set the film’s Big Baddy in motion. Sasha gets inexplicably sick, and John starts acting like a dick for no reason, and everybody starts talking like they know exactly what those words in the drawer meant. “Don’t worry, the Bye Bye Man isn’t real,” well okay guy, you just saw some random scrawl, what exactly are you saying isn’t real? Motivations make no sense in this movie, and the audience is expected to accept it when the screenplay falls back on the concept of what the Bye Bye Man is as a crutch to explain everybody’s weird behavior. But like, why did John start randomly scrolling through his pictures in the middle of class? If I’m goofing off, I’m gonna entertain myself with Solitaire.
So the trio invites over Kim (Jenna Kanell), who’s gifted in the art of séances and all that spooky shit, and Elliot is finally broken of his cynicism when she tells everybody about his forced and lame tragic backstory. He does some poking around and figures out what the rules of the Bye Bye Man are, and then people start getting picked off in classic horror fashion. Things are made even worse when, despite his friends already believing in everything that’s going on, there’s one moment where they decide to distrust him out of piss-nowhere. You see, it’s revealed that if the Bye Bye Man (have I said his name enough to be put out of my misery?) is en route, he can twist reality and make you see anything that’ll put you in danger.
This is bad! This is a bad rule to have. It’s not like in It Follows (2014), where the thing is always following you and once it gets there, you’re dead; this is a “you’re always in danger” scenario, where the bad guy, who is admittedly pretty cool, is given no onscreen action himself, ruining everything he has going for him and eliminating any hopes of being actually scared in the process. If the way you’re going to die is the movie’s oyster, and there are no boundaries to set yourself to, there is no scariness. You’re not frantically looking for a way out, you’re just along for the ride. When I saw this movie, the audience laughed way more than they gasped, and the biggest reaction anyone had was uproarious laughter when a few butts were shown (which was actually pretty funny.) It doesn’t help that the lines that are supposed to be haunting are as silly as the title itself, and that the acting during emotional scenes is Sky High (2005).
This is a bad movie. Every aspect of filmmaking I can think of gets a D. That said, I had fun. This is a pretty decent example of what makes a horrible, yet fun, date-night horror movie! I didn’t go in expecting anything more, and I was even treated to a surprise realization that made me a little giddy. I’ve been saying for a while that it must be impossible to create a new, franchisable horror villain and that every possible one was already made in the 80s. But I was wrong! Once prosthetics veteran Doug Jones un-hooded himself to reveal the titular character’s face, I saw the potential that The Bye Bye Man has to be the next shitty horror franchise, and to stand alongside the rest of the tall, white, masked or deformed characters that we know and love. I’m a lifelong horror fan, but I have to be brutally honest with myself. The Bye Bye Man is no worse than Friday the 13th (1980).