Another January brings another wave of subpar horror films, and this week’s The Bye Bye Man is no exception. The once R-rated film was originally scheduled for an October 2016 release until distributor STX Entertainment, in a surprising show of confidence, moved the film to a June 2016 release. Then the film was pushed back to January 2017 and here we are. Further hopes for a quality film were dashed when it was revealed that it had been edited to obtain a PG-13 rating. The constant shuffling and editing should serve as a warning for filmgoers this weekend, as The Bye Bye Man is a sloppy and silly mess of a film. This is a shame considering the premise (think Oculus meets A Nightmare on Elm Street) is actually quite promising.
College friends Elliot (Douglas Smith, Big Love, Ouija), Sasha (English actress Cressida Bonas, really struggling to hold an American accent) and John (English actor Lucien Laviscount, faring better with his American accent) move into a new house away from their college campus where they come across the name “The Bye Bye Man” scratched inside an old nightstand drawer. After Elliot says the name out loud during a séance held by Sasha’s friend Kim (Jenna Kanell), the four friends are plagued by the supernatural entity (genre veteran Doug Jones) whose curse is spread by saying his name.
The film gets off to a pretty great start. Following a haunting prologue that sees a seemingly psychotic man go on a mass murder spree, we are introduced to the trio of main characters before the titular villain begins stalking them. Director Stacy Title has a lot of fun in the early scenes and avoids jump scares for the most part. Working with cinematographer James Kniest, the pair craft up some well done shots and scares (one particular long shot involving a child walking into a small door is simply wonderful), but once The Bye Bye Man’s name is said aloud, the film becomes as cursed as its protagonists.
What started as a moderately creepy supernatural thriller quickly becomes a nonsensical laugh-fest that makes absolutely no sense, sucking all of the tension out of the proceedings. I’m not one to criticize a film that has been edited to obtain a PG-13 rating, but in The Bye Bye Man’s case it directly impacted the quality of the film. Even if you’re able to ignore the careless way the gore was removed (example: a character is shot with a shotgun on screen and there is absolutely no blood to be seen anywhere), you’ll find it impossible to ignore the way the film skips along from scene to scene. Character motivations fail to make any sense after a while and Elliot’s descent into madness seems to happen between scenes. Perhaps it was left on the cutting room floor? Or maybe screenwriter Jonathan Penner (who happens to be the director’s husband) just glossed over those little details.
The performances are decent with the exception of Bonas. Her performance is so wooden that you’d be forgiven for thinking she was just another piece of furniture in the dilapidated house. Faye Dunaway is wasted in her only scene in which she simply to doles out exposition (the film is filled to the brim with characters explaining what they are doing and why). Carrie-Anne Moss also shows up for a few scenes about halfway through the film to liven things up a bit. There is a scene in which she interrogates Smith’s character that works so well due to its restraint that you almost wish the whole film had been modeled after that one scene. There is talent behind the camera here, but it only makes fleeting appearances, much like the Bye Bye Man himself.
Speaking of, the Bye Bye Man is one of the biggest problems with The Bye Bye Man. You’re not given any information about him, which would be fine if he were at least somewhat scary. His first few appearances are creepy enough, with the film providing a lot of “Where’s Waldo” moments as he hides in the background of scenes, but it becomes fairly obvious that this is the only trick up the Title’s sleeves. The Bye Bye Man doesn’t do much other than stand around and watch his hellhound (did I mention he has a hellhound?) sniff around the room. By the time the characters think of a way to stop him (in a revelation that completely rips off the aforementioned A Nightmare on Elm Street) you won’t care anymore. The mythology surrounding the character is equally murky, with his curse lacking any clear rules.
So who is to blame for the slapped together mess that is The Bye Bye Man? Is it Jonathan Penner’s screenplay? Or is it Ken Blackwell’s editing? Is it the studio’s fault? Or did Title just drop the ball? It is undoubtedly a combination of all four, but the fact of the matter is that The Bye Bye Man just isn’t very scary. In fact, it becomes laugh-out-loud funny at a certain point and the laughs keep a-coming until the credits roll. The characters utter two sentences repeatedly in the film: “Don’t think it. Don’t say it.” I’ve got one more to add: don’t see it.