Don’t think it, don’t say it, don’t see it.
The mantra of “Don’t think it. Don’t say it.” is repeated by all the variously sexy and disturbed teens in The Bye Bye Man, the newest proto-franchise horror film to suddenly leap from a shadowy corner. Similar to Candyman or its origin of Bloody Mary, The Bye Bye Man is an onomastically-powered ghoul – say or think his name and he holds sway over your mind, making his victims hallucinate until they fall completely into murderous madness. He’s also completely silly.
Under his reaper’s robes The Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones, silent and spindly as ever) wears a brown henley shirt and sensible slacks. Death comes for you with both comfort and fashion. He has a CGI zombie mutt that looks like it’d fit right into a Resident Evil game from the late ’90s. Towards the end of the film, after spending endless time ominously pointing his slender finger at the college kids living in a home unfortunate enough to house the scribblings of a past Bye Bye victim, he catches one and boops him on the forehead like he was ringing a doorbell (pictured above).
This film is completely incompetent at crafting scares, but it sure is unintentionally campy.
Speaking of, I’m not sure why the protagonists of the film don’t just use synonyms for The Bye Bye Man to avoid using his proper name (The Goodbye Guy, The See Ya Sir, etc) but I’m going to start using them here.
Elliot (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and their friend John (Lucien Laviscount, the best of the trio) move into a house together that’s not haunted, but plagued by unexplained coins dropping from nightstands and scratch marks on their landscaping. Something’s definitely amiss. They find a hidden name carved into a piece of furniture and host a tepid seance by a “sensitive” house party attendee (Jenna Kanell). Check, check. You’ve seen these plot beats before: people see things that aren’t there, investigate vague search terms in a library, and desperately try find a way to outsmart the evil Farewell Fella they’ve uncovered.
They can’t tell anyone what they’ve found because then he’ll be inside their minds as well, infecting their thoughts with his spooky imagery. That means their little circle is also a ticking time bomb of potential to spread this viral demon. It could be tense, but character interactions usually just boil down into poorly-cut conversations that, like movie conversations often do, escalate so quickly we get whiplash.
As an added layer to the puzzle, there’s meant to be sexal tension between Sasha (as Bonas tries fruitlessly to pass as American, her hard consonants floating away from her natural British cadence) and the lascivious John, with Elliot too good natured to see it. The Goodnight Boy exploits this underlying anxiety in Elliot’s mind to wreak havoc in his subconscious. However, nothing in the film works right.
If you can’t set up a scare, it’s way out of your range to set up a laugh or a reveal. The slovenly direction plays fast and loose with the audience’s emotions, lazily framing key shots in a cramped home that could make for tense moments of suspense, mislighting scenes to look like sitcoms rather than the moody shadows of the rest of the film, and encouraging actors to go further and further into hokiness. It’s one thing to be a bad horror actor, but playing a gibbering madman never goes well. Think of poor Jim Carrey in The Number 23 or John Cusack in 1408.
Repetitive chanting has to be so big that it’s almost impossible to make scary unless the chanting itself is otherworldly or alien (think the “Kali Ma” incantation in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). When an actor like Smith (whose tired eyes have the potential for Rami Malek-like expression) must shout something as mundane as “Don’t think it, don’t say it” over and over again, it’s hard not to make fun of it – especially if the rest of the film’s camp has you chuckling. “Say it, don’t spray it” is a little too close to expect jokes not to be made.
Weirdo supporting cast members round out the boring plot with their own charmingly terrible acting, including a florist surnamed Daizy (played by the film’s writer Jonathan Penner, whom you’d imagine wouldn’t want to show his face), a librarian (Cleo King) that seems to think she’s in a comedy, and a detective (Carrie-Anne Moss, completely game) that allows Elliot – suspected of murder after people begin dropping like flies around him – to leave her custody after he threatens/charms her by talking in weird circles about when the truth is and is not important. It’s truly a post-truth society these kids are living in. There’s also child actor Erica Tremblay who seems to have failed to absorb any talent or charm merely through proximity to her brother Jacob.
The Bye Bye Man isn’t scary. But it also isn’t any fun. The campy teen murder romp has to acknowledge its camp, be goofy on its own terms. The film’s best moment is when the wonderful Faye Dunaway shows up as a dire Gothic widow that keeps a handgun on her person at all times and speaks like she’s channeling the board game Clue. She explains some backstory on The Later, Dude and then catches ablaze like a bundle of twigs at Burning Man. It’s all a hallucination of course, but then again, half the film feels like a hallucination. A bad trip – but not existentially terrifying, just inescapably frustrating – like if you dropped acid and then lost your keys.
After a sloppy, laborious case of mistaken identity that involves cutting back and forth between characters, the characters they’re talking to, and the characters they’re seeing, the film finally finishes with a tortured end loosened purely as contingency in case the film somehow does well enough to surpass the (surprisingly high) $7.4 million budget and warrant a sequel. Perhaps this isn’t the last we’ve seen of The Hasta La Vista Baby, but without the filmmaking chops present in films like last year’s Ouija: Origin of Evil or Don’t Breathe, it’s another laughable horror cash grab.
Related Topics: Horror