Don’t think it, don’t say it, don’t write it, or he’ll come for you. With some villains like Jason Voorhees, or Harry Warden, all it takes to put yourself out of harm’s way is avoiding a certain place, or choosing not to throw a certain party on a certain romantic holiday. However, when it comes to The Bye Bye Man, all it takes for this Grim Reaper of sorts to claim his next victim is for that person to let their mind wander for a single moment, and allow themselves to think about the dreaded man in the cape. Once The Bye Bye Man is in your head, there is no escape from his wrath, and the more you think about him, the closer he comes, until he finally takes you once and for all.
In the new movie The Bye Bye Man, three college friends, Elliot, his girlfriend Sasha, and his best friend John all move in to an old house together on the outskirts of their college campus. At first, it seems like they’re getting away with murder, as they’re able to snag a spacious two story for such a low price, but soon it becomes clear that there’s more to their little bargain than meets the eye. One night Elliot discovers an old coin in a nightstand left by the previous owners, followed by hysterical drawings and writings, all topped off with the carved words “The Bye Bye Man” engraved into the wood. He laughs it off, but as the gang slowly begins to experience strange occurrences within their home, suddenly the history left in this old house doesn’t seem so funny anymore. One by one the three begin to go mad, hearing coins rolling, seeing the lights from a speeding train, hallucinating things that aren’t there – it all can only mean one thing: The Bye Bye Man is coming for them, and soon, he will claim them all.
Director Title claims that the key to scaring modern day audiences is creating a connection between the viewers and the characters onscreen, so that when they begin to encounter trouble, it becomes that much more terrifying because people don’t want to watch these kids be tormented and eventually become an addition to the villain’s kill count. However, although this might have been what the director intended, it’s not clear at all in the film, which offers little backstory into these characters, giving the audience nothing to work with other than knowing that these are three friends and two of them are dating. Because of this brief introduction, and a speedy inclusion of The Bye Bye Man, when things start to go awry, it feels less like good kids getting taken advantage of, and more like these people were crazy from the start. There’s no character arc to speak of. The gang, as far as the audience can see, starts out relatively crazy, and only gets weirder and wackier, making their descent into madness much more comical than horrific.
Aside from the poorly developed characters, the mythology of the Bye Bye Man himself is extremely fuzzy. There’s just too much going on, with little explanation as to why any of this started happening in the first place. You know that The Bye Bye Man is coming when you hear the flip of the coin. You also know he’s coming when you hear the sound of the train and see its lights booming in your direction. You also know he’s coming when you see his big CG dog. You also know he’s coming when you see his big black cloak. In the end, one starts to wonder if there are actually any signs that don’t indicate that this villain is headed our way. Although in interviews, the director cites the reason behind the sounds of the train being associated with The Bye Bye Man as the result of a childhood trauma, which led to a grown version of the boy who was tormented to eventually come back as the evil entity who seeks vengeance, none of that is made clear in the movie itself, or even actually mentioned. It’s not always necessary to explain exactly how evil spirits came to be, but with such a strong tie to the train, and such shotty mythology to begin with, it only makes this mess of a movie seem that much more muddled.
Also, even though The Bye Bye Man is supposed to affect each of his victims in their own specific way, bringing the skeletons in their closet to light and exaggerating the demons that already exist within the dark depths of each individuals’ mind, it seems like every person who is affected by the spirit of this madman just winds up doing the exact same thing. They all mutter the same words, “Don’t think it don’t say it”, and write those very same words over and over again on paper and walls and desktops and whatever surface they can find, they all act angry and jealous, and they all eventually fly into a crazed rage and kill everyone around them. Given this, what exactly is it that is so specific about his torment for each person? It doesn’t make much sense, and again, only adds to the muddled mythology.
In its defense, there are some good things to be said about The Bye Bye Man. The idea that all a person has to do to become a victim of a killing spree is let sinister thoughts enter their head is a very interesting premise to begin with, even if it is executed poorly in the end. There’s a pretty solid opening sequence with modern day horror icon Leigh Whannell going from house to house in a suburban neighborhood with a shotgun, blasting away everyone who has ever been associated with the hooded figure, and leaving a wicked trail of bodies in his wake. There’s also a pretty great performance, as per usual, from superb creature actor Doug Jones, who does the best he can to create a terrifying component of the story for his depiction of The Bye Bye Man, although he’s given little to work with. It’s also very encouraging that there’s a female director behind the wheel, and that she feels so passionately about the work she’s done here. It would just be nice if her vision were a little clearer in the final product.
Although there are good intentions here, and some positive aspects to take away from the film, in the end, there’s not enough to save this typical January release from falling under the radar. With a fuzzy mythology, characters that start out crazy, laughably bad scare tactics, and horribly shoddy editing, The Bye Bye Man can’t quite survive the environment he’s placed into. It’s a shame, because there is some talent to speak of, sprinkled in amongst the mess. However, in the end, The Bye Bye Man won’t join the ranks of the greats, and as much as he tries to stay in our heads, will most likely soon be forgotten.