Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There’s always a special place in cinema reserved for the young – especially in the horror genre. Certain films act as the gateway for younger viewers to enjoy added value in intelligent storytelling. These are the films destined to play like gangbusters at tween/ teen sleepovers in the post-midnight slot after their moms and dads fall asleep. In my day, there was LISA and THE STEPFATHER – two films that weren’t necessarily good, as they were disposable entertainment, yet worth their weight in a few solid scares. That same qualification system can be applied to director Stacy Title’s THE BYE BYE MAN. While this lacks the inherent fun of an urban-legend-style campfire tale, it’s sorta serviceable to the right audience. Sorta.
Twenty-something intelligent but insecure Elliot (Douglas Smith) is in the prime of his life. He and his sweetheart Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and longtime best friend John (Lucien Laviscount) have moved off campus into their first home. It’s a decaying manse replete with a creepy basement, hallways wallpapered in busy floral wallpaper and loads of dank, dark cubby holes. This house holds the potential for great things, but also holds the secrets of The Bye Bye Man, a malevolent entity who terrorized victims decades earlier. Things take a turn for the worse when, after a party, Sasha’s psychic pal Kim (Jenna Kanell) picks up on The Bye Bye Man’s presence – and he uses her as a conduit to infect the four friends’ minds. In order to survive his mindgames, they must follow two key rules: “don’t think it,” and “don’t say it.”
Jonathan Penner’s screenplay, an adaptation of Robert Damon Schneck’s short story The Bridge to Body Island, has a solid foundation to build upon. This modern boogeyman of The Bye Bye Man – similar to “Bloody Mary,” “Beetlegeuse,” “the Candyman,” and “the Babadook” – is really just an allegory for obsession and mental illness. A great basis, but one they don’t really play around with. LIGHTS OUT is one of the more recent horror films to take this ingenious concept (that harkens back to the unrelenting force of Michael Myers in HALLOWEEN) and spin it into something much more unique. Same with IT FOLLOWS – another film THE BYE BYE MAN emulates during the cold open that features a distraught character (Leigh Whannell) plagued by madness in the picturesque heart of suburbia. Our antagonist, played with ballet-like precision by Doug Jones, is a mix between THE BABADOOK and NOSFERATU. Though Elliot and John never quite reach the heights of characters in a Neal Moritz-y teen horror film (something they should’ve done), at least Sasha is developed enough to where you can point out the strains of influence from Catherine Deneuve’s character in REPULSION and Mia Farrow’s in ROSEMARY’S BABY. Bonas handles the task with aplomb, earning her the MVP title. That said, the movie still needed to turn these homages into narrative relevance and resonance – which are significantly lacking.
Title’s atmospheric aesthetic hits some of the right spots with the bleak, washed out color palette of James Kniest’s cinematography and Jennifer Spence’s smart production design. Their use of the home’s shadowy recesses echoes the protagonists’ paranoid mindsets. Jump scares run a little on the cheap side, thanks in part to some very ropey CG on The Bye Bye Man’s hound, but the filmmakers get in at least one clever power play on character perspective. However, it’s a long gestating set-up to this innovative twist that might test your patience.
Perhaps the biggest problem with THE BYE BYE MAN is that it’s just not fun enough, at least not for the seasoned adults in the audience. Despite the lame-duck attempts to pepper in humor, it takes itself too seriously. A few scenes may dip into unintentional camp (I dare you not to laugh at Larry’s first failed suicide attempt, Elliot’s late night driving music, and an extremely clunky third act line), but it’s not enough to push this into “so bad, it’s good” territory. Unfortunately, the film’s ubiquitous phrase, “don’t think it, don’t say it,” is all-too-easily expanded to include “don’t see it.”
THE BYE BYE MAN opens on January 13.