The aforementioned victims – college sweethearts Elliott (Douglas Smith) and Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and Elliott’s longtime friend John (Lucien Laviscount) – invoke this otherworldly being with the help of psychically-gifted Kim (Jenna Kanell), not heeding the frantically-written warning Elliott unwittingly uncovers. “Don’t think it, don’t say it,” scrawled in a nightstand drawer, isn’t enough to stop Elliott’s curiosity from getting the better of him, and once they let The Bye Bye Man into their minds, he doesn’t go away. Instead, he speeds their encounter with the inevitable, making the kids have visual and aural hallucinations which prey on their greatest fears and jealousies.
Any way you look at it, The Bye Bye Man is a facilitator for a virus-like mass psychosis; you only have to say his name, and your life is over. A prologue set in the 1960s sets up the desperate measures to which journalist Larry Redmon (Leigh Whannell) goes to stop the potential spread of this virus, with disastrously bloody results. There’s no good way out of The Bye Bye Man’s grasp, and there’s no beating him.
Y’see? It’s a maddeningly brilliant conceit – a ghastly killer who doesn’t actually kill, whose name spreads death like a disease, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop what’s coming for them. Not having read “The Bridge to Body Island,” the chapter in Robert Damon Schenck’s book “The President’s Vampire” upon which The Bye Bye Man was based, I can’t tell you what was a product of Schenck’s or screenwriter Jonathan Penner. Regardless, Penner’s screenplay is taut, like guy wires stretched to their limits, slowly fraying until the threads start breaking; the tense wait to see them snap is thrilling enough for a modern-day PG-13 horror film.
Which brings me to the reasons why The Bye Bye Man could have been so much more under different circumstances. The PG-13 rating definitely gets pushed here with gore and a surprising glimpse of a couple mid-intercourse; in doing so, the film sacrifices intensity for graphic pleasures. In the hands of a different director – one capable of pacing, maintaining dreadful tension, and coaxing good performances out of his or her actors – The Bye Bye Man could have been so much more, even with its hamstringing PG-13 rating.
The performances are this film’s kryptonite; any kind of tension director Stacy Title hopes to brew is almost immediately undone by made-for-cable-level acting. In the opening prologue, we have Redmon going on what seems to be a senseless killing spree; owing to hammy overdramatics, this comes off as unbelievable as it sounds, and I’ve seen Leigh Whannell do much better. Throughout the film, Cressida Bonas’ one-note, flatline delivery hampers what should be a linchpin role as the innocent caught in the sudden insanity which has gripped her closest friends. And going full-on lunatic doesn’t suit Douglas Smith well; handled with a bit more restraint, this could have been one of his finest.
The film is a little too close to 2014’s Ouija – coincidentally also starring Douglas Smith – in that there’s a group of kids messing around with the supernatural leading to disastrous consequences. Likewise, I heard more than one screening attendee liken this film to Candyman, another film where mentioning a villain’s name brings him to life. Shades of Dark City, Oculus, and the creature design from Pan’s Labyrinth come to mind.
Regardless of these influences, what I liked about The Bye Bye Man is that it doesn’t shy away from where it has to go, and it has the balls to see it through to the end. But the best aspect of The Bye Bye Man is the question of who the real villain is – is it our fears, or is it truly the madness The Bye Bye Man puts in our heads? I may not have liked this film’s looks, but I’m kinda digging its brain the more I think about it. Superficial qualms aside, The Bye Bye Man surprisingly gives you more to think about than you might expect.