A PG-13 horror movie released in early January, written by a cast member of Survivor, and directed by the woman who helmed Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror. I never go into a movie assuming it’s bad, but The Bye Bye Man certainly has an uphill battle to fight against a slew of potential preconceived notions. It checks off a lot of boxes that frequently keep audiences away from this sort of fare.
While I won’t say that The Bye Bye Man is good—I can’t, because it’s not—I will say that I had a thoroughly good time. Compared to quite a few slapdash, early-in-the-year horror clunkers so often dumped in January—think The Forest from 2016—you can do a lot worse. Rent it with some like-minded pals, build up an ample supply of adult beverages or other preferred intoxicants, and it’s easy to have an enjoyable evening. Just make sure to watch it at night, because, as one character says, it’s hard to be scared in the middle of the day. Or at all when watching this movie.
Directed by Stacy Title (The Last Supper), working from a script by her husband—three-time Survivor contestant, Jonathan Penner—The Bye Bye Man is based on a chapter in Robert Damon Schneck’s book, The President’s Vampire, which digs into strange, supposedly real, phenomena from throughout American history. So, basically, it’s based on an urban legend and follows a group of kids who run afoul of this particular bit of mythology.
The Bye Bye Man opens with a legitimately strong scene of an unhinged madman running through his suburban Madison, Wisconsin neighborhood in 1969, muttering to himself, blasting friends and neighbors with a 12-guage. Filmed in long, low, wide-angle takes and with handheld following shots, the aesthetic harkens back violent 1970s grindhouse fare. Originally, the MPAA slapped an R-rating on The Bye Bye Man, though it was dropped to PG-13 on appeal. It toes that line, and though there’s relatively little gore and sex to be found, it’s grittier overall than the rating automatically implies.
It’s when the film jumps to the modern day where things go off the rails. (Watch the movie and that choice of cliché makes total sense, it’s not just me being lazy, I swear—though to be fair, the whole train thing is a head-scratcher, part of an ill-advised, entirely undeveloped attempt to evoke a River Styx/journey to the underworld theme.) Three college students, a nerd, Elliot (Douglas Smith); a hot girl, his girlfriend, Sasha (Cressida Bonas); and his lifelong BFF, John (Lucien Laviscount), move into a creepy old house off-campus.
For the first not-quite-act—maybe half an act—The Bye Bye Man does a moderately solid job establishing mood and creating an atmosphere of dread. It’s not unique or original or anything any horror fan hasn’t seen a million times, but it’s passable. Doors close and open willy nilly, shadowy figures pass in the background, and it’s just generally a creepy old house in the woods being a creepy old house in the woods. The characters aren’t well-drawn, but they’re not entirely hate-able, either. It’s fine, it’s just fine.
Of the myriad issues The Bye Bye Man has, an almost complete lack of plot sits at the top. It’s like someone tried to ape It Follows and The Babadook, only to lose interest part way through. The kids find a cryptic message and fall face first into a half-baked urban legend, the Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones, Hellboy). He’s a little bit like Candyman, only he comes to get you when say or even think his name—no three times in a mirror for him. This spreads from person to person like a disease whenever anyone utters his name and the kids have to cut him out like a cancer, or something.
Not a lot of thought went into backstory. For some reason, the Bye Bye Man has a skinless dog that looks like a poorly rendered version of Zuul’s sidekicks from Ghostbusters, and the man himself resembles William Sadler’s Death from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. The script never digs into what he is or where he came from, or offers any sort of actual information; this is just a thing that is. Eventually, it feels like Stacy Title and Jonathan Penner threw up their hands, took a step back, and said, “Fuck it, let’s see what happens.” Which is kind of admirable, but doesn’t make for the most well-constructed horror film as it meanders to a finish, making shit up as it goes.
A couple of what-the-hell-is-she-doing-in-this-movie moments stand out in The Bye Bye Man, including the presence of a living Hollywood legend. Then again, there are many things about this movie that leave the audience asking, “Huh?”
The Bye Bye Man is dumb, dumb as shit, and not the kind of inspired lunacy or narrative ineptitude that makes for a future cult classic. It’s never boring, but this one is destined to be forgotten long before the inevitable direct-to-video sequel. But if you’re of a certain mindset, in a mood for a specific type of horror joint, and, again, a little buzzed if not full-on tipsy, a particular set of circumstances exist where it’s possible to watch The Bye Bye Man and have a pleasant enough time. [Sober Grade: D+/Drunk Grade: B+]