‘The Bye Bye Man’: Film Review
Douglas Smith stars in Stacy Title’s horror thriller, with some unexpected support from Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Anne Moss.
Launching a new horror franchise is almost always a heavy lift, but several memorable properties have been successfully introduced over the past few years and so far show little sign of fading, including the Insidious, Purge and Conjuring/Annabelle series. The Bye Bye Man apparently seeks to join this group, but by attempting to lay claim to the iconic Friday the 13th release date sets the bar at a challenging height.
Stacy Title (Snoop Dogg's Hood of Horror) helms this amalgam of haunted house, demon possession and psychological horror elements, which is often involving, although not quite entirely satisfying. Lacking any significant genre-related competition over its opening weekend, STX Entertainment’s PG-13 release could see decent numbers if the company’s saturation marketing campaign can motivate teens to get out of the house and into the theater.
An opening sequence set in 1969 Wisconsin depicts crazed local journalist Larry Redmon (Saw writer-director Leigh Whannell) embarking on a shotgun shooting rampage, murdering eight neighbors before killing himself. Cutting to the present day, college students Elliot (Douglas Smith) and John (Lucien Laviscount) prepare to relocate off campus after signing a lease on a large single-family home, along with Elliot’s girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), even though she’s never seen the place. They quickly discover that the decrepit house is more in need of renovation than redecoration, but with some old furniture hauled up from the basement they soon make it habitable, despite the home’s frequent squeaks and creaks.
Soon after moving in, Elliot finds some mysterious inscriptions inside the bedside table he shares with Sasha. Handwritten words reading “Don’t think it, don’t say it” are repeatedly scrawled on the bottom of the drawer and when Elliot removes it, he finds the phrase “The Bye Bye Man” carved into the table. He mentions the strange references to Sasha and John, but neither has any idea what they may mean either. After a raucous housewarming party, Sasha’s friend Kim (Jenna Kanell) helps them hold a seance in an attempt to psychically cleanse the house. She quickly calls it off when she detects a malevolent presence, saying “something is coming,” and Elliot suddenly realizes that she must be referring to The Bye Bye Man.
Soon afterwards he begins to catch glimpses of a spectral, cadaverous man lurking around the house, but the others never seem to see him, although they develop their own troubling symptoms. Determined to discover the origin and intentions of the supernatural entity shadowing their lives, Elliot begins to intensively research the Redmon shooting of decades earlier, trying to establish some connection with their current afflictions, but the more he finds out, the more questions seem to arise.
Although the script by Title’s husband and actor Jonathan Penner is adapted from Robert Damon Schneck’s short story “The Bridge to Body Island,” it lacks any distinctive origin story or internal mythology akin to the devil-worshiping of the Paranormal Activity series or the nether-realm of Insidious. That forces the narrative to develop its own unique logic, which is never satisfactorily articulated, although tantalizing hints occasionally surface, such as the recurring image of an oncoming train rushing through a nighttime landscape. The concept of an evil curse that can spread almost virally between victims owes more to J-horror classics like The Grudge and The Ring than any particular innovations on the part of the filmmakers however.
From a plotting perspective, the film succeeds in laying out a plausible progression of events that rapidly envelops the bewildered characters, particularly the logical and methodical Elliot. Smith charts Elliot’s burgeoning paranoia and fear with increasingly debilitated responses to the intrusions of The Bye Bye Man, struggling to maintain a grip on his sanity and protect his friends and family members. Notable supporting appearances by the lovely Faye Dunaway as Larry Redmon’s surviving widow, who has some key information to convey to Elliot, and Carrie-Anne Moss as a suspicious police investigator provide the film with some brief but welcome ballast.
The pic deploys a fairly effective range of horror techniques, including jump scares, misdirection and some oddly unattractive VFX to ratchet up the tension, although gore is at a minimum. Cinematographer James Kniest’s fluid Steadicam and forced perspective shots casually nod to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining without being unnecessarily derivative.
The Bye Bye Man wouldn’t be a franchise aspirant without hinting at the possibility of a sequel, or perhaps more than one, depending on interpretations concerning the film’s intentionally ambiguous conclusion.
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Production companies: Intrepid Pictures, Los Angeles Media Fund
Cast: Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas, Michael Trucco, Doug Jones, Carrie-Anne Moss, Faye Dunaway, Leigh Whannell, Jenna Kanell
Director: Stacy Title
Screenwriter: Jonathan Penner
Producers: Trevor Macy, Jeffrey Soros, Simon Horsman
Executive producers:Seth William Meier, Patrick Murray, Marc D. Evans, Donald Tang,
Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson, Oren Aviv
Director of photography: James Kniest
Production designer:Jennifer Spence
Costume designer: Leah Butler
Editor: Ken Blackwell
Music: The Newton Brothers
Casting director: Anne McCarthy, Kellie Roy
Rated PG-13, 92 minutes