They say that you’re never supposed to judge a book by its cover. I’m sure STX Entertainment is counting on that idiom holding true, because you’d be hard-pressed to find a more undermining name for a horror film (and its central villain) than The Bye Bye Man, an undeniably silly epithet whispered in hushed and reverent tones by his scared stupid victims. Written by former Survivor contestant Jonathan Penner and directed by his wife, Stacy Title, The Bye Bye Man follows a group of college students who stumble onto this sinister presence with an idiotic name and discover that once you say his name, he stalks you and makes you see things that aren’t there until you kill a bunch of people and also probably yourself. It’s up to them to break the cycle, like it always is, it seems. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that the book’s cover seems like a pretty solid reflection of the book itself in this case.
What is perhaps impressive (though that modifier really has no place anywhere near a film like this) is how astonishingly low its level of effort is in all aspects of the production. There are a few jump scares, as is custom, but far more “unmoving character lurking in the background of a shot” scares, as is custom (we really need to come up with a snappy name for that, for all of our sakes). Doug Jones was hired to play The Bye Bye Man. And by play, it really means Doug Jones was hired to sit in a makeup chair for a while so he could stand in a corner wearing a cloak that obscures most of his face. Lead actor Douglas Smith looks like the intersection of Dane DeHaan and Rami Malek’s blank Mr. Robot stare, established as a cool, counterculture skeptical sort of guy because he wears Dead Kennedys, Joy Division and Violent Femmes T-shirts (yes, this is literally a case of character development by wardrobe, far be it to consider actual dialogue or interactions to set up such traits), forced to react to things that aren’t there for an uncomfortable amount of time once The Bye Bye Man takes hold. This is about the height of performance here (and there are a few actual names, like Carrie-Anne Moss, Michael Trucco, and, bizarrely, Faye Dunaway -- Faye Dunaway! She was in Chinatown!), which is not a good sign.
Here’s the thing (well, one of the things): a name like The Bye Bye Man could work under the right sort of circumstances. Take, for instance, The Babadook. It’s not as actively a silly name as The Bye Bye Man, but there is a certain childlike connotation to the sound of its name. It made sense for The Babadook because the character first appears in the pages of a twisted children’s book, thus informing on the name and giving it a sense of purpose within the scope of the world it terrorized. The Bye Bye Man does nothing like this. It is a boogeyman of the most abstract and arbitrary manner, with the film seeding all sorts of ideas and objects that speak to some kind of mythology or backstory (a supernatural skinless hell hound companion, coins that show up whenever he’s near, the sound of a train, a deformed and scarred face), but none of it (and I mean NONE OF IT) ever pays off. It’s completely random. There’s no nursery rhyme or poem or folk tale that gives insight into the villain and his childish name, no reason for why the train and the coins and the dog. So that means it’s called The Bye Bye Man because it’s called The Bye Bye Man. They didn’t even try to justify its dumb title. This feels like a case where the writer did an internet search for “stuff people find creepy in horror movies” and threw everything he found into a blender and this came out the other side. It’s part Candyman. It’s part It Follows. It’s part A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s part Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Fear Demon (and the character design seems borrowed heavily from The Gentlemen in “Hush”). It’s just table scraps of better ideas, foisted upon us for no particularly good reason. It's rated PG-13 presumably for box office concerns, which only succeeds in making its bloodless violence completely inconsequential.
Rules aren’t established in this world, which allows The Bye Bye Man’s powers to be as arbitrary as his name, and neither the script nor director bothers to endeavor for any amount of clarity. At one point, Elliot’s girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) gets sick for about twenty minutes of the movie. She coughs a bunch and feels chilly even in a greenhouse. It seems to point to this being one of the powers of The Bye Bye Man, to inflict colds on his unsuspecting charges (veeeeery spoooooky), but then she takes a nap and wakes up totally fine and not one more word is said about her mysterious illness. This is the sort of laziness that defines the experience of watching The Bye Bye Man, where ideas are dropped about as quickly as they are considered, no logical through line even comes close to emerging, and the acting and dialogue is so laughably bad that at the very least you’ll spend most of the movie chuckling at how wildly stupid it all is. If the film had embraced its campiness, there’s possibility it could have found its footing as a pastiche, but it’s all played straight to the detriment of literally everyone who comes into contact with it.
Horror movies like this are a dime a dozen, mostly because for the dime it costs them to make, it brings a hell of a lot more than a dozen in box office receipts. And it works too, which is the eminently frustrating part of all of it. There are plenty of high effort, original and exciting horror movies made every year, whether it’s The Witch or The Autopsy of Jane Doe or Under the Skin or It Follows or Green Room, but that won’t stop movies like The Bye Bye Man from being made. But we can fight against the rising tide of terrible January horror movies. We can vote with our wallets and stay home or spend that money renting one of the many excellent horror films that has been released in the last few years that probably won’t make half as much money as The Bye Bye Man will. The tagline of this movie, repeated as a mantra by its characters in an attempt to stop the spread of its villain’s “terrifying” influence is “Don’t think it. Don’t say it.” Honestly, it’s excellent advice. Just like The Bye Bye Man himself, it’s best just to disavow any knowledge of this film’s existence.