Maybe it’s a just a sign of the Blumhouse-era horror-movie world we find ourselves in, but there’s something refreshing about a scare flick that (a) actually shows you its monster occasionally and (b) gives you a definite reason to be afraid of it. Hiding things in shadows to enhance audience fears is fine, but franchises like Paranormal Activity (great first film; shame about the rest) have taken us way too far in the other direction, where both the scary thing and the stakes only really become apparent after about 70 minutes of bumps in the night, with 10 minutes of screen time remaining. So while The Bye Bye Man may boast the stupidest-named bogeyman since the Babadook, his actual presence makes everything in the movie surrounding him better. It’s a shame the same can’t be said about his victims.
It’s also a shame the movie doesn’t stay in 1969, where it begins with Saw‘s Leigh Whannell, in full retro-nerd garb of horn-rimmed glasses and white button-down shirt, grabbing a shotgun and killing his handicapped neighbor, along with a few others for good measure, all because they’ve apparently heard something they shouldn’t have. But no — a murderin’ Mad Men isn’t as marketable as dumb, present-day teenagers unleashing the monster again decades later, so here we are following three college kids: Elliot (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and his best friend/foster brother John (Lucien Laviscount).
College dorms are so awful that this crew would rather rent the nearest run-down old house with mysterious tiny doors and a creepy basement. But perhaps it would have all turned out OK had Elliot and Sasha not quoted aloud from Rilke on the topic of fate being like a flip of the coin. Before you know it, an unseen force is literally flipping coins around the house, most notably onto one nightstand (the pun opportunity is ignored, alas) that contains the demented scrawlings of a previous resident. “Don’t think it, don’t say it,” the notes urge. Unhelpfully, scratched in the wood just beneath the paper bearing this warning is the specific phrase one is not supposed to think about or say. And yes, it’s the title of the movie.
The character of the Bye Bye Man hails from Robert Damon Schneck’s anthology The President’s Vampire, which purports to tell based-on-truth horror tales from American history and culture. We’re spared the bullshit “based on true events” tagline here, because the character as written by Schneck was essentially Clive Barker’s Candyman. The new wrinkle is a good one: Rather than having to say a name five times aloud, one need only think of the Bye Bye Man’s name to have him home in on you. For anyone who has ever had that middle-of-the-night paranoia that thinking about bad things could cause them to happen, this is the monster born of your anxiety. And since he’s played by Doug Jones, he’s also born of fandom. Not a bad combo, really.
And once the Bye Bye Man does find you, his weapon is even more paranoia, fed by detailed hallucinations that play on your fears and weaknesses. Think that person you just slept with is unhygienic? Watch maggots come out of her eyes! Anxious to help people and save lives? Here’s an imaginary car crash with injured victims … in the path of a real fast-moving train! Also, the villain has a big, blood-drenched evil dog that doesn’t actually do anything but is kinda scary looking. Thankfully, the filmmakers don’t give us much of Schneck’s backstory, so we’re never in danger of sympathizing with the guy in the robe sporting that “Glasgow smile” common to so many anime demons and Heath Ledger’s Joker.
No, most viewer sympathy will go to Carrie-Anne Moss and Faye Dunaway, elevating the material with a day or so’s worth of work apiece and going a long way toward giving this movie geek cred. Dunaway plays the obligatory old woman who knows exactly what’s going on, while Moss is the responsible cop who wants to. That both authorities, literal and figurative, are women is a step up, as is the fact that the director is too: Stacy Title hasn’t made a theatrical feature since Snoop Dogg’s Hood of Horror, 11 years ago, but she still knows her genre pleasures. Hood relied heavily on gore, but the cut-down-to-a-PG-13 Bye Bye Man does fine without, expertly using jump scares that mostly aren’t cheap fake-outs.
It may be that I’m assessing on a curve because it’s January. But if you miss the slasher icons of old and have little patience for the reboot attempts they get periodically, it’s nice to see at least a worthy attempt to add to that pantheon. Time and box-office numbers will tell whether the BBM himself will be more Wishmaster than Candyman, but as wishes for horror eye candy go, he’s an OK fulfillment.