Given its premise, its time-of-release, and its mostly familiar blend of tropes, it's surprising to say that The Bye Bye Man is as competent of a horror film as it is. A teenage thriller that finds itself somewhere at a crossroads between the Final Destination franchise with a dash of Ring/Paranormal Activity-narrative twists that find themselves more developed, the film winds up stretching its concept further than most of its like-minded predecessors, or at least those not arrested into a franchise.
The film revolves around the always-amiable Douglas Smith, who you might recall from Santa's Slay, a truly fun holiday horror film. Smith plays Elliot, a college student who moves into off-campus housing with his best friend John (Lucien Laviscount) and his live-in girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas). Odd occurrences start happening when the trio find a couple of ancient coins in an equally ancient nightstand, which has the phrase, "DON'T THINK IT, DON'T SAY IT" fiercely scribbled all over its drawer, writing that works to obscure the carved message "THE BYE BYE MAN."
Put simply, The Bye Bye Man is a recurring spirit/black-cloaked demon, who continues to disappear and reappear all while making those who have said his name hallucinate and encounter vivid nightmares. Elliot, John, and Sasha all start encountering these nightmares shortly after their psychic friend Kim (Jenna Kanell) comes over to bless the house with strong spiritual vibes and is forced to the floor upon unearthing the secret.
The Bye Bye Man
Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas
13 January 2017
Steve's Grade: B
The trio's hallucinations are as simple as snapping out of reality for a lengthy amount of time, seeing events that aren't really occurring as a way for the spirit to manipulate or try and alter the actions of his subjects, and making it seem as if characters are doing things they're not. Elliot tries to combat the hallucinations by discarding the very natural feeling of fear, something The Bye Bye Man thrives on, and researches heavily into the history of the elusive demon in hopes of finding a way to break the spell.
The Bye Bye Man doesn't operate in the same vein as contemporary horror films being that it doesn't feel the nudging need to be predicated upon jump-scares. The film is much more of a narrative-based picture than I initially believed, and while it may lack the slowburn craft of something like The Witch, it offers up enough of a story and explanation to at least prompt some level of interest in what is going on with these characters. There's a pleasant amount of time devoted to explaining the checkered, almost inaccessible history of The Bye Bye Man, which we learn dates back to a story a reporter conducted back in 1969 that led him to go on a vicious killing spree after putting the character into the minds of many people. He eradicated it, but didn't do a great job of burying all the evidence.
The film was directed and written by the husband and wife team of Stacy Title and Jonathan Penner, the latter being the same man who performed in the CBS reality show Survivor more than a few times. I never had any idea Penner and his wife were involved with the horror genre, and though this is an adapted story, they create enough of a Midwestern atmosphere that allows for a real mood to craft. Again, this is not a film erected on the shrieking sounds of cloying synthesizers and abrupt, ear-shattering pangs that clearly articulate to you when you should jump from the scares. This a film that builds and builds quite effectively as it persists on.
Close looks into the cast at the right times will prompt solid cameos by The Matrix's Carrie-Anne Moss, doing her best at being so stern, and even Faye Dunaway, who shows up late for a walk-off performance that provides the kind of backstory we need to drive everything home in the final act.
There are plenty of films in the "teen horror" genre - especially in this particular one that's annoyingly muted to cater to a PG-13 rating - but few are capable of erecting any kind of story or excitement to their premise. From the get-go, the story is something Penner seems to prioritize with The Bye Bye Man because perhaps he recognizes that if the story is strong, or at least marginally intriguing, we are able to care about the teenage characters regardless of how faceless they may seem. There's not a perfect balance here, but it's one that works more commendably and entertainingly than it should.