The Bye Bye Man: Hello, Emptiness, by David Bax
Maybe the most surprising thing about Stacy Title’s The Bye Bye Man is that it makes no attempt to address how stupid its title is. At no point do we get an explanation of the name that might make progress toward diminishing its silliness. It’s just the name of the monster, plain and simple, and we have to listen to characters repeat it over and over for 90 minutes. The Bye Bye Man. The Bye Bye Man. See? It doesn’t get any less stupid no matter how many times you say it. Other than that, though, surprises are few and far between here. At any given point, you know exactly where the story is going to go next and, in case you don’t, the characters will explain it to you in detail. Despite this, however, Title produces consistently competent scares and even manages to maintain a bit of thematic heft.
Three college students—boyfriend and girlfriend Elliot (Douglas Smith from Big Love) and Sasha (Cressida Bonas), along with Elliot’s boyhood friend John (Lucien Laviscount)—rent an off-campus house that’s large and surprisingly affordable. Note to young people: If you can’t believe how little a landlord is asking for a fully-furnished three story house that no one has lived in for decades, it’s probably haunted or something. In this case, the catch is a boogeyman eager to manifest himself inside of people’s heads and turn them into homicidal maniacs. He can only do so, though, to those who know his name. His name is The Bye Bye Man. Yep, still stupid.
From the very first scene, a prologue detailing a brutal mass homicide in the 1960s, Title’s instincts are at war with the screenplay by Jonathan Penner (adapting a short story by Robert Damon Schneck). Title’s accomplished visual language and pacing are spot on but the characters consistently trample on the mood by over-explaining everything. This is the type of movie where the protagonist’s older brother initially addresses him as “little brother” in order to make their relationship clear but spends the rest of the movie referring to him by his actual name like a regular person.
It doesn’t help that the core cast’s talents range from boring to just plain bad. Meanwhile, veteran actors like Carrie-Anne Moss, Cleo King and the great Faye Dunaway are relegated to beings of pure exposition. Yes, that’s right. This movie spends so much time explaining itself that it requires three whole characters just to get through it all. The only performers who get to shine are the ones saddled with the least dialogue, like horror writer/producer/mainstay Leigh Whannell as the 1960s killer and Doug Jones as The Bye Bye Man himself.
Title’s decision to use Jones is a good one and indicative of her overall solid impulses. That The Bye Bye Man is portrayed by a flesh and blood actor is a vital choice, one of many smart decisions Title makes when left to her own devices. She knows how to take her time without being plodding; watching Whannell’s murderer determinedly stalk his running, screaming victims is chilling. She also excels at foreshadowing (literally) the scares to come; we can tell from which dark corners of the house the monster is most likely to emerge even before he’s made his first appearance and Title keeps us watching them. This persists throughout. Title has a horror director’s knack for utilizing negative space, letting the viewer’s paranoid eyes search the frame for danger that may not have even been forecast yet.
Buried under all the boneheaded dialogue, The Bye Bye Man is not just scary but also metaphorically rich. The notion that once an idea is in your head it becomes real is a potent and relatable one, here illustrated both by the monster himself and also by the accompanying plot in which Elliot becomes more and more sure Sasha and John are carrying on an affair after Elliot’s brother casually mentions the possibility. And on the flip side of that train of thought, we are encouraged to ponder whether something real ceases to exist if no one is aware of it. Title balances these heady elements with patient, assured horror strokes but she’s twice burdened. First, with an amateurish, overloaded screenplay. And second with a really dumb title.