Reviews

The Lack of Imagination in 'The Bye Bye Man' Is Vexing

Doug Jones and Douglas Smith in The Bye Bye Man (2017)

The Bye Bye Man's illogic is typical of horror movies.


The Bye Bye Man

Director: Stacy Title
Cast: Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas
Rated: PG-13
Studio: STX Entertainment
Year: 2017
US date: 2017-01-13 (General release)
Website
Trailer

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.

4

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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