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Friday, January 13, 2017

Review: THE BYE BYE MAN Isn't Good, But Hey, At Least This Review Title Isn't A Dumb Pun

There's a demonic force, an evil idea, that prowls the world. This idea is so malevolent that saying it out loud, even thinking it, can summon it. And once it sees you, you can no longer trust your senses, your memories. And as you slowly go insane, as this presence pushes you to do cruel, unspeakable things, it does so knowing that there's nothing you can do. Its very name is a virus, and if you say it to anyone, you've infected them. It will come for them, too. And it's called the Bye Bye Ma--

--God fucking dammit, seriously? The Bye Bye Man? That was the best you could come up with? Not even a demonic sounding name, but, like, the last words a young child might say when his uncle leaves? Fuck, okay, fine.

It's called the Bye Bye Man. And, after a tight-knit trio of college kids move into an old house off campus and find a desk with his name scrawled in it, it has them in its grasp.

Look, let's be upfront: This is a profoundly stupid title and an even stupider name for the monster, and that's hard to overcome. There's a reason Insidious didn't have everyone running around scared of "The Lipstick Goat", or why Sinister made up a demonic-sounding name for its monster rather than calling it "backup Slipknot bassist." The movie has some pleasantly eerie imagery, and genre vet Doug Jones plays the Bye Bye Man with a lanky, grinning intensity that works really well in the film, but god damn, every time they say "the Bye Bye Man" the tension just broke for me.

The Bye Bye Man isn't quite as bad as its premise sounds, but it just can't stop shooting itself in the foot. Beyond just the name, it's all the small things. The violence in the film, which was initially rated R before being re-cut to a more studio-friendly PG-13, is laughable, with characters gunned down by shotgun blasts that punch a whole in the wall behind them, but leave wholly intact, bloodless corpses and crime scenes. The performances range from excellent (an underused Carrie-Anne Moss and Doug Jones) to overacting-but-fine (Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount) to the just-make-the-character-British-this-really-isn't-working (Cressida Bonas). The premise - say or think the demon's name and it will know you exist and begin stalking you - is both simple and chilling, but writer Jonathan Penner (adapting a short story by Robert Damon Schneck) can't help but muddy the waters; the film features a genuinely psychic friend, a seance, mysterious flashbacks, references to a haunting origin, a cute kid who keeps almost finding it, and other stock horror tropes. Hell, the first twenty minutes or so plays like a haunted house movie, with something malevolent stalking the kids even before the say the name, which fundamentally doesn't make sense with the 'rules' as laid out here. The core idea is part Oculus and part It Follows, but - despite copious exposition to that effect - you'd be forgiven if you left the theater thinking it was a stock Sinister knock-off.

Even the direction, from Stacy Title, is scattered. There are some wonderfully intense moments and interesting visual scares. She handles the earliest appearances of the Hellhound, an otherwise ugly-looking CGI beast, subtly, creating some surprisingly effective scares. There are a number of moments with odd angles or bad use of space that left me confused as to the characters' relationship with whatever was supposed to be scary, which is just an amateur mistake -- albeit one that could be the fault of extensive recutting. Indeed, the editing is the biggest problem with The Bye Bye Man in some ways, as some potentially scary moments linger just a bit too long or come just a beat too late.

Screenwriter Jonathan Penner, Title's husband, has some deeper problems, from basic issues with exposition (roughly 70% of the dialogue, it often seemed) to a monster that... doesn't really seem to do much. Even at the Bye Bye Man's most powerful, he mostly just watches mayhem, rather than cause it himself, which - in the absence of any sort of exploration as to what he is or how he operates - kind of neuters him as an effective monster. So much of the film is about the necessity of stamping out the very idea of the Bye Bye Man, but the film never establishes him as much of a threat -- the people seem to be the monsters here, but even that thread is mostly unexplored as the movie sticks by the three people slipping away slowly, rather than showing us the people who really lose it. "Mostly Unexplored" could be a subtitle for the film, which hints at a larger mythos - trains, coins, the hound - but at no point coheres all these elements into anything more meaningful than "Sometimes, the characters see and hear these things."

There are kernels of good ideas scattered throughout The Bye Bye Man, enough to make me wonder if there's a more interesting, coherent cut out there. But, as is, The Bye Bye Man manages a few chills, but literally everything it does, Oculus did better, smarter, scarier, and first... except for one bit, which The Nightmare Before Elm Street did better, smarter, scarier, and first. The idea of a viral evil, of demon as meme, isn't new, but it's an area still ripe for exploration and expansion as we as a society delve deeper into the noxious wasteland of social media. But The Bye Bye Man isn't really that. As much as the premise hints towards that, at times, the script is blunt enough as to obliterate the very notion of subtext. 

There are some tense, frightening moments in The Bye Bye Man, and at least one scene that I genuinely loved, even if its outcome doesn't make a ton of sense. But, whether because of the script or the direction or the eventual studio re-cut for a PG-13 rating, The Bye Bye Man, beyond its awful title, just doesn't really hang together terribly well. And you can string together as many frightening moments as you want, but if the movie is as ridiculous as this one often is, the sheer amount of times you stop and say, "Wait, hold on, what?" ends up neutering any tone of persistent dread Stacy Title may have been able to create. I've seen worse horror; hell, I've seen worse horror in the last month. But few recent examples have squandered an intriguing premise quite so thoroughly as The Bye Bye Man.

The Bye Bye Man is out now in theaters across the nation. Written by Jonathan Penner and directed by Stacy Title, The Bye Bye Man stars Douglas Smith and Cressida Bonas.
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