Here we are again. A new year, a new January, but business as usual, as the month notorious for being the Hollywood dumping ground of terrible films gears up for another wintery blast of mediocrity. The first release of the year, Underworld: Blood Wars notably rose above the dregs with its reinvigoration of a tired formula. So the burden falls to The Bye Bye Man, a curious blend of Candyman and Insidious, whereby conjuring a demon can lead to a hasty demise. And it’s only too happy to oblige, teasing an original, complex concept in the first few scenes, only to succumb to the weight of its duty as January fare, unambiguous, cheap, crowd-pleasing, cliché-ridden, PG-13 horror.
For a while The Bye Bye Man does not act like the derivative January horror release that it ultimately becomes. Opening with an auspicious long take tracking shot that follows a deranged man to and from a house in the 1970s, spraying bullets while shouting “don’t think it, don’t say it,” the film then jumps forward in time to the present where three college friends, a couple and a third wheel, are renting a house near campus that may be haunted. Cursed objects like an old fashioned coin that keeps falling to the floor, scratching sounds outside late at night, a pair of creepy eyes that peer out from a crawlspace, and a robe on a hook that occasionally seems like someone or something is inside it, accompany our main character’s nightmares of an ominous train going nowhere and suspicions that his girlfriend and best friend are cheating together, all pointing to a screenplay by Jonathan Penner grasping at many different threads just within reach. And director Stacy Title navigates the story very effectively, relying on cheap jump scares a few times, but mostly clocking its rhythms with an eye towards a big reveal built on tiny, disparate, escalating pieces. Who is the Bye Bye Man? What are the rules surrounding his appearance? What are his limitations? While perhaps not answering these questions satisfactorily, the film’s engine runs primarily on the notion that these answers do exist, and so the film is elevated above its run-of-the-mill contemporaries, which are void of any such logic.
The moment of its undoing, however, comes at the significant point in all horror films where character curiosity and intrigue over what is happening becomes conviction and belief, and enough of the puzzle pieces have been put together to auto pilot the story to its end. There is a gigantic leap here, which defies credulity, a tremendous amount of plot occurring in the span of a few minutes, with back-to-back moments of violence, and the introduction of a new detective character (an always welcome Carrie-Anne Moss) who distracts from the pivotal moment by trying to pull it back into an exposition phase it has so clearly already left. All of a sudden The Bye Bye Man’s reach exceeds its grasp, perhaps betrayed by Title’s wide casting of the net, and her incremental reveals in the first hour, when at last it just wants to become like every other bad horror film lately, and coast through to the finish line. It ends too quickly, everything gets wrapped up, a possible sequel is teased, and things just start falling into place, as if everyone involved lost track of time and only had twenty minutes to vacate the set.
What is most successful about The Bye Bye Man is the intrigue surrounding the titular character. Penner’s screenplay echoes shades of Clive Barker, in that his boogeyman takes more of a backseat, acting as facilitator, and exploiting the weaknesses and fears of his human subjects that orchestrate their own demise. The first half teases a great, expansive mythology to be explored, but sadly he crams everything into the outline of a rote, one-off that targets the wrong audience, guided no doubt by budget concerns and short attention spans, while leaving everyone else unsatisfied, and feeling cheated at their earlier investment. The Bye Bye Man needed another half hour to smooth over its tonal transitions, or else it should have recoded the last few reels more ambiguously, following through with the scattershot wonder Title explored in the beginning, and finding a more emotional resolution to the story instead of getting bogged down in ticking off its checklist of loose ends. It takes a story with a kernel of inspiration, and cheapens it, makes it something I really don’t ever want to watch again, or care to see further explored in a sequel, which based on box office returns, will never happen. The Bye Bye Man is just another example of something that could have been, reduced to the dust that collects on the first quarter dump bin of cinema, tossed off and soon to be forgotten. If not already.
The Verdict: Pan