It’s January, folks, the most wonderful time of the year for Garbage Cinema. Fresh out of the gate of this year’s basket of deplorables is The Bye Bye Man, a junkie horror flick starring mostly no one you care about engaging in unscary activities for mercifully under 100 minutes. Grab your bucket of popcorn and a group of rowdy friends, because that’s the only way you’re going to enjoy this one!
College-age best friends Elliot (Douglas Smith) and John (Lucien Laviscount), along with Elliot’s girlfriend, Sasha (Cressida Bonas), move in together to an off-campus horror house near their Wisconsin-based university. During their housewarming party, they notice that one of the end tables that came with the house has nutty writing scrawled on the inside (“Don’t think it, don’t say it,” the film’s tagline), covering some scratches that read, “The Bye Bye Man.” After this discovery, the trio begins to experience strange occurrences: Sasha hears strange noises in the house, John can’t seem to get it up anymore and Elliot perceives that his buddy is moving in on his woman. Little do they realize that their encounters with the Bye Bye Man are only beginning, and will only get much worse.
The movie begins promisingly in 1969 with a professorial man (an unhinged Leigh Whannell) repeating the film’s catchphrase over and over as he blasts his neighbors with a shotgun. Nothing like a bit of the old ultraviolence to kick off what seems like an otherwise toothless slog. But then the PG-13-ness of it all comes seeping in, presaged by the strange lack of blood engendered by the madman’s buckshot.
The cast is uniformly, blandly sexy in the way you’d expect from Southern California central casting, instead of the sort of folksy, Midwestern people you saw in Making a Murderer that should populate a film set in Wisconsin. They confront the mounting horror that approaches them with a range of blithe indifference (Bonas), bovine paralysis (Laviscount) or screeching hysteria (Smith), none of which feels appropriate to the film’s tone. But the director, Stacy Title, (who is, rarely and refreshingly, a woman) does little to establish just what that tone is. Other than token jump scares, there is no sense of atmosphere to the film. Is it quiet, dark and brooding, or oppressively shrill and loud? The movie hits both sour notes, seemingly at random.
Then there is the issue of the Bye Bye Man himself who, in the broadest of strokes, I guess symbolizes man’s inhumanity to man. Screenwriter Jonathan Penner, working from Robert Damon Schneck’s story, ”The Bridge to Body Island,” brings out Mr. Bye Bye when it is convenient to the plot, not when his presence is thematically relevant. The Bye Bye Man also has an inside-out dog thing who accompanies him, visualized in murky, wretched CGI to accomplish precisely nothing more than to look gross. In making the central villain merely window dressing when the bad stuff is going down, the Bye Bye Man is rendered ineffectual and, therefore, not at all frightening. Even Doug Jones, known for looking awesome in Guillermo del Toro’s movies, is nevertheless unable to wring anything of interest out of this baddie: he looks like Heath Ledger without his Joker makeup, except with an angry teenager hoodie on.
When some actual professional actors show up, the movie has already lost what little steam it has. Carrie-Anne Moss is her usual, stoic self as a detective who sympathizes with Elliot after a particularly unfortunate run-in, and Faye Dunaway (!) injects some crazy energy to the film, vamping it up as a woman who survived a brush with the Bye Bye Man. The film’s climax is quite entertaining, playing with the characters’ perception of reality as their tormentor brings them to their knees. The final scenes are so full-tilt bananas that you wish the movie had committed to being this crazy the entire time through. By then, that ship has sailed. So will this movie, right out of your brain, five minutes after it’s over.