The Bye Bye Man
Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas
US theatrical: 13 Jan 2017 (General release)
The victims are hapless college students, a white couple and a black best friend. The house they rent is inhabited by a monster who wears a cloak with a hood. They hold a séance. They blame each other. They search for answers on Google.
Yes, most everything about The Bye Bye Man is familiar. Even before Elliot (Douglas Smith), Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and John (Lucien Laviscount) walk into the big spooky off-campus house in Generic College Town, Wisconsin, you know what they don’t, because they haven’t seen the 1969 prelude, in which a Madison man (Leigh Whannell, responsible for the Saws and “Insidiouses), cocks his shotgun, then blasts a bunch of holes in his family and friends, all the while saying how sorry he is. Before you can say “Amityville Horror” or “The Conjuring 2”, Stacy Title’s movie has set in motion all that follows, first and foremost: the house is haunted, don’t go in there.
Still, you might feel briefly buoyed by the visual logistics of the 1969 scene. The camera tracks with the man—whom you soon learn is a local newspaper reporter—the angle low, the shot close enough to see his face, at other times following him, from behind, or from just ahead, and at last, paused, watching him stagger across the street, up the driveway and to the front door of his neighbors’ home. That long shot, waiting and observing, allows you to hear the banging and the screams inside, the distance creating a harrowing inability to see, so your imagination can do its most effective work.
Here the scene breaks the spell of that harrowing moment, cutting inside the house, where your imagination becomes unnecessary. Instead, The Bye Bye Man goes on to explain everything that follows, three or four times. The present day has Elliot, Sasha, and John taking up residence in the Bad House. As they check out the Bad Basement, Elliot and Sasha smile and hug, and John looks on, teasing but also, inevitably and a little too literally, embodying trouble, or put another way, inviting his best friend Elliot’s jealousy.
Ostensibly, John serves this function because he’s the designated jock, taut-abbed and arrogant (maybe not because he’s black, as the threat this poses is never addressed, but he is the only black character in sight, in this Wisconsin). Certainly, among the three protagonists, John is the most opposite of the Bye Bye Man (played by Doug Jones), in his sense of urgency and aggressiveness. The Bye Bye Man, when he becomes visible, is tall and skeletal and floaty in his cloak, and above all, silent, using a crooked finger to intimidate the kids who shake and sputter before him.
In this and in the fact that victims call him into visibility, the Bye Bye Man is like monsters before him, from Candyman to The Babodook. Once called, he’s hard to shake, as indicated by the mantra recited by those who have called him. “Don’t say it, don’t think it,” they tell themselves, while also, at the same time, over-explaining the utter uselessness of this mantra, as it presumes thinking and saying in itself.
Such illogic is typical of horror movies (otherwise, why does everyone keep making the same mistakes?), but even if you grant this one that leeway, its lack of imagination is vexing. More precisely, its lack of trust in your imagination is vexing. When Sasha comes down with a cough after a first night of fretting in the Bad Bedroom (this after a night of hackneyed off-campus-college-student-style partying in the new rental, a pack of kids downing beers and dancing salaciously and not knowing anyone’s names), she’s increasingly unable to handle herself. This leaves her primary function as the object of the boys’ (and the camera’s) gazing, and her perspective is lost as she’s sleeping or feverish.
Between coughs, Sasha’s primary activity is to bring in her English classmate Kim (Jenna Kanell), who prefers a vaguely gothy look and self-identifies as “sensitive”. Not nearly as helpful as a psychic or a ghost-buster, she agrees to help Sasha and the boys discover what might be wrong with the house, only to tell them it’s too terrible to discover and insist she can’t help them, evincing some genuine fear—before she spends the night having loud moany sex with John because, well, John.
True to John’s function, this one-night tryst means pretty much nothing, except that now it’s four kids in trouble, rather than three (and leads one of them into a Final Destination-like appointment with a large, noisy vehicle. Indeed, it appears that the Bye Bye Man is interested in numbers, in that the point of “Don’t say it, don’t think it” is to induce saying and thinking, by more and more people, like a chain letter. That Elliot finally sorts out this part of the puzzle, leading him to someone older and wiser, someone with experience who might advise him, is predetermined by hoary formula.
At first, you think it’s the college librarian (Cleo King) because he goes to the library to Google and then actually look at files in boxes. She is, alas, no Giles, but rather, just a means to get Elliot alone in a large room with lots of desks, where he’s treated to an encounter with the Bye Bye Man that has the monster approaching him one shot at a time, recalling, of all things, Count Orlok’s phenomenal approach during Hutter’s Bad Night in Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horrors.
But then you see that all these bits, all these references to previous images are leading you to the one that matters, if only because it’s the one near surprise in The Bye Bye Man. When Elliot finally hunts down someone he thinks can provide an answer, he doesn’t quite find one, because, you know, “Don’t say it, don’t think it.” He does find Faye Dunaway (as Widow Redmon), however, and for that you are eternally grateful. Here she is, a one-scene character, elegant, resilient, sitting in her living room by her fireplace, serene in knowing that she doesn’t want to know. Oh my goodness, you think, if only she had showed up earlier, and made exactly this pronouncement. You might have avoided all of this, and perhaps imagined something else.