PG-13 96 mins. Stacy Title USA 2017
The Bye Bye Man is a decent horror film. I can’t say it’s terribly innovative but it was enjoyable enough—and interesting enough—for me to recommend it.
In some ways, The Bye Bye Man feels like something of a throwback to the 1990s and early 2000s. It evoked Candyman (1992), Final Destination (2000), and The Ring (2002)—with a nod to the more recent Slenderman mythology.
The film begins in Madison Wisconsin in 1969 when Larry Talbot (Leigh Whannell)—a journalist, as it turns out—goes on an inexplicable killing spree, asking his victims only if they have told anyone “his” name. Then we flash forward to the present day and to three college students: Elliot (Douglas Smith), his long-time best friend John (Lucien Laviscount), and Elliot’s girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas). The three of them are moving into an old house in Sun Prairie Wisconsin, and it doesn’t take long for strange things to start happening. Elliot finds a nightstand covered in writing—“Don’t Say it . . . Don’t think it,” and the words The Bye Bye Man engraved into the wood. Elliot, of course, does say it, during a séance with the “sensitive” (not psychic) Goth friend of Sasha’s, Kim (Jenna Kanell), who knows from the get-go that there is something very wrong with the house. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that The Bye Bye Man gets closer whenever you say his name; he gets into your head, making his victims see and hear things that aren’t there. He spreads like a virus. As Kim says, “Some people catch it and it spreads” (one reason the film evoked The Ring).
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One of the strengths of this film is definitely the directing by Stacy Title and the cinematography by James Kniest (who worked on Hush). There are some genuinely scary shots of the Bye Bye Man—not cheap jump scares—and he, too, in his inscrutability, remains an interesting horror monster. He doesn’t get much backstory—we know what he does but not why or where he comes from, and in the inevitable comparisons to Candyman, this may be the only area in which The Bye Bye Man comes out ahead. Candyman’s origins were a bit overly laboriously explained, while the Bye Bye Man remains something of an enigma. (Why is he associated with trains, for instance?)
Indeed, the Bye Bye Man seems to afflict people completely randomly, embodying a quotation apparently from Rilke which Elliot offers near the beginning of the film: “Fortune is like a coin tossed by the hand of God.” The Bye Bye Man does seem to embody “Fortune” in the older sense of the blind wheel of Fate. He’s not out for revenge; he has no purpose, no intent; his victims don’t deserve what happens to them in any way. And here’s where I think the film evokes the Final Destination films: death is coming, and there’s no rhyme or reason for it.
If The Bye Bye Man has its dread-filled moments (pretty much all involving the film’s genuinely creepy monster), it’s also notable for its ideas, always something I look for. Horror films should make you think as well as feel fear. This film raises the question of the permeable boundary between ideas (things that are supposedly just in your head) and reality—again, evocative of The Ring. The film is about the power of thinking things—and about how impossible it is not to think of something. What you could call repression, denial, avoidance, or even active suppression not only doesn’t work but it makes what you’re trying not to think about even bigger.
And ideas have a reality in the world—as the Bye Bye Man (incarnation of an idea) makes palpably clear. “Ideas are real,” Sasha says at one point. In a classroom scene (a staple of horror films), the professor tells us that “Language and reality inform each other.” The idea of the palpable reality of ideas in the world ends up shaping how the characters try to exorcise the Bye Bye Man. As the librarian, Ms. Watkins (Cleo King), tells Elliott, “If you remove references to something in the past, then it’s gone. Even the idea of it is gone.” (Perhaps it’s telling that one of the memorable appearance of the Bye Bye Man is in the library—storehouse of ideas.) By removing all references to the Bye Bye Man in any written documents, by removing the idea of him from people’s heads (and it turns out ideas are so powerful you have to kill people to remove ideas from their head!), then perhaps the Bye Bye Man himself can be banished.
I think the film is making not only a philosophical point here about the real power of ideas, but is also speaking to things like the tragic act of two pre-teen girls who attacked another because they thought Slenderman wanted them to. For them, ideas and reality certainly became confused.
The acting by leads Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscort, Jenna Kanell, and Doug Jones (as the Bye Bye Man) was good; there were standout cameos by Leigh Whannell and Faye Dunaway—and I thought Cleo King was great as Ms. Watkins. Cressida Bonas sadly left much to be desired as Sasha (who had a lot of screen time unfortunately), and Carrie-Anne Moss’s performance as Detective Shaw was distractingly flat (but she wasn’t in the film for long).
I find myself interested in the continuation of the Bye Bye Man mythology—which is certainly a sign the film did something right!