Don’t think it, don’t say it.
There are few things more admirable than when a horror film tries to create its own memorable villain or creature creepy enough to be remembered along with the likes of Jason, Freddy Krueger, or Michael Myers. Over the past few years, horror fans have seen several successful attempts at creating modern day equivalents for those films as well, with movies like The Conjuring, Insidious, It Follows, and even Don’t Breathe all adding to the pantheon of great, scary horror characters by bringing their own unique spin and feel to the genre.
It’s difficult not to admire The Bye Bye Man for also trying to introduce its own horror icon into the pop culture lexicon, which sets its titular character up as a psychological force of evil, who grows in power the more time you think of his name or say it out loud (hence the film’s “Don’t think it, don’t say it” tagline). Opening with a flashback to a 1969 massacre set in a sunny Illinois suburb, in which a journalist takes a shotgun and kills himself along with four of his neighbors, all of whom he deduces were the only ones told “the name,” and it doesn’t initially seem like The Bye Bye Man will be wasting any time before getting started.
Cross-cutting the sequence with the sounds and quick visuals of a train barreling down some lonely railroad tracks, this opening sequence gives the film some legitimate artistic promise. Not only that, but it simultaneously tells the audience that The Bye Bye Man is less like your typical ghost, and more like a legitimate force of nature, whose powers over his victims are so horrible, that they’re eventually forced to do terrible, inhumane things to try and stop his influence from spreading.
Unfortunately, the mythology behind the character, who you’ll know is coming whenever you hear the sound of a train or see random coins dropping on the ground, is never fully explored. Even more disappointingly, his tricks and powers never seem to amount to much more than having hallucinatory powers over his victims, and some very ominous finger waving from actor Doug Jones, who brings the character to life. Oh, and he also has a pet demon hound of some kind, whose CGI rendering is so bad, it looks more fitting of a Resident Evil film than the grounded, psychological horror that The Bye Bye Man is trying to sell.
What follows that opening flashback sequence is even more disappointing, as the film cuts suddenly to the present day and introduces its lead trio of victims, a group of college friends moving into an off-campus house for the first time. Each one is the typical horror movie stereotype, including Elliot (Douglas Smith), the film’s prototypical male who we’re meant to know is cool and lovable because he quotes philosophical novels and wears Joy Division t-shirts. He’s the lead of the film, moving into the house with his cocky and attractive childhood best friend, John (Lucien Laviscount), and his first longtime, sweetheart girlfriend, Sasha (Cressida Bonas).
From the moment we meet them, the seeds of a possible secret romance happening between John and Sasha is presented to the audience (something The Bye Bye Man uses to often laughable effect), and once the trio begin unpacking the old furniture waiting in their house’s basement, things only go downhill from there. Especially when Sasha and Elliot begin noticing random coins dropping from the house’s nightstand, which Elliot finds out has been scribbled upon crazily by its previous owner, in order to try and conceal The Bye Bye Man’s name scratched into the surface of the drawer. Once that seed is planted and Elliot eventually says the name out loud, The Bye Bye Man’s premise truly starts to take effect.
Weirdly, the rest of the film feels more like a melodrama at times than it does a horror story, in which all three of the characters continue to act increasingly more buffoonish as time goes on and their minds are brought closer and closer to being torn apart by the evil force terrorizing them… even after they all realize who The Bye Bye Man is and what it is he’s trying to do. “Either there’s something here, or we’re all losing our minds at the same time, and what are the chances of that?,” Sasha says to Elliot about halfway through the film, before all three of the characters continue to doubt each other and are fooled by The Bye Bye Man’s antics. None of their actions make sense, and become increasingly more frustrating the more the film’s plot continues to transparently manipulate them.
Smith, Laviscount, and Bonas’ talents all range from wooden to predictably bad, as the film tries to force them to act outside of their abilities. All three are completely outshined once veterans like Carrie Anne Moss or Faye Dunaway take the stage, both of whom are in the film for mere minutes, and still manage to leave greater impacts than anything else in the film, including its titular demonic presence.
Director Stacy Title shows promise in a few of the film’s sequences, when she uses her camera to show the expansiveness of some of the rooms in the film’s central house, but where The Bye Bye Man could have been a truly effective and creepy haunted house film, it instead tries to be some kind of harebrained mystery. Unlike how James Wan used the houses in both of his Conjuring films to create staggering, tense, and terrifyingly drawn out set pieces, The Bye Bye Man instead tries to create its scares with cheap jump cuts and laughably bad CGI effects. Whatever momentum was created in its opening flashback is quickly derailed by spending just a few minutes with the film’s cliched and ignorant lead characters.
Like many other successful horror films in recent memory, The Bye Bye Man steals elements and techniques from several of the horror greats that have come before it, but doesn’t bring anything new or unique to those inspirations. So while the mythology behind the admittedly, laughably named character offers quite a lot to unpack, the film forgets the most important rule there is when trying to make a horror villain really land, and it’s that, above all else, they must be scary first. If there’s one thing that The Bye Bye Man is not, it’s scary.