Three college friends move into a dilapidated house and, after reciting an inscription scrawled on an item of furniture, accidentally invoke a manipulative phantom.
Following 2016 (a golden year for horror) was always going to be tough for the first tranche of genre films of 2017. Where last year saw classics like The Witch, Green Room, Under The Shadow, Evolution, The Girl With All The Gifts, Baskin and Train to Busan, 2017’s horror output has so far been slightly staler, with mostly generic efforts such as Underworld: Blood Wars, Split and the soon to be released Resident Evil: The Final Chapter. Also amongst January’s arrivals was Stacy Title’s The Bye Bye Man: a creaky, creepy pot-boiler about a scarred spectre in a scary black cloak. Title’s film was initially met with furrowed brows from both fans and critics, due to negative word of mouth but surprisingly it has a lot more to offer than expected, especially for 90s horror fans.
After helming the likes of Hood of Horror, Let The Devil Wear Black and excellent black comedy The Last Supper, Title has established genre experience, but The Bye Bye Man (her first film in ten years) bears a fair few blemishes. It’s patchy plot is cliché peppered, mired by trite dialogue, shoddy editing and makeshift performances, yet it’s refreshing to see the tropes it embellishes, employed in such an interesting way. While not overly original, The Bye Bye Man is a unlike anything we have seen for a while. It’s straightforward tale is clumsily told but Title’s direction casts its deficiencies in an oddly flattering light and augments the tale with traits not widely embellished in horror since the 80s and 90s, when iconic demon/ monster figure centred flicks plagued video stores and, to a lesser extent, multiplexes.
The Bye Bye Man is a supernatural scoundrel whose ability to manipulate peoples’ perceptions recalls the skill-set of Freddy Krueger. Also like Krueger, The Bye Bye Man can be banished into dormancy if forgotten by those he is tormenting. Cue scenes featuring characters consciously (and contradictorily) trying to wipe him from their minds. The story sometimes seems like a slightly tweaked version of an aborted Elm Street sequel but has enough distinguishing features to stand its own ground. Despite a latter half plot malfunction and flimsy central concept, Title successfully conjures an ominous mood which spikes ordinary moments with underlying dread then jimmies in jump scares more efficiently than the current spate of neck cracking movie ghosts manage. The Bye Bye Man is certainly the scariest released this month (so far), despite being the least refined. While this doesn’t sound like much of a striking poster quote, its sharp frights should startle hardened aficionados while others may make eyes roll in annoyance.
The story stammers through contrived set-pieces throughout the latter half and is hindered further by hack acting and ham-fisted dialogue. Further dramatic conflict arises when protagonist Elliot (Douglas Smith) becomes jealous of his best friend John’s (Lucien Laviscount) blossoming relationship with his sweetheart Sasha (Cressida Bonas) which The Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones) exploits, while Emo/ psychic Goth friend Kim (Jenna Kannell) detects bad vibes and does her best to dissuade them from further paranormal dabbling. The Bye Bye Man himself is at his most terrifying when half concealed by shadows or mistaken for a coat on a hook in the dark, and less so when accompanied by his digital hell dog which stumbles about like Zoltan’s malformed offspring or the jittering, pixelated bitch-hound of Dracula. The plot is constantly compelling throughout the first half, if not slightly hacked and mechanised. But, even when the botched design flits into ridiculous for a garbled finale, The Bye Bye Man is, for the most part, forgivable.
Tepid performances, plastic dialogue and brutal editing go some way to fetter but the plot is punctuated by yanking terror which shoots via boo jumps as unease filters steadily. The main characters are all surprisingly affable yet also a little stale, but screenwriter Jon Penner and Title don’t short-change us in terms of what happens to them. Their bravery pays off in other ways too and just about saves The Bye Bye Man from slipshod triteness. A sequel/ franchise won’t be totally unwelcome given the film’s surprising financial success stateside, and the prospect of seeing this demon knight pester other teens by causing them to hallucinate and kill innocent bystanders could be quite amusing if done in an original way. A series may run the risk of banishing the franchise to streaming site oblivion, but will probably make a truck ton of money in the process. Like Elm Street’s dreamscapes, there are endless possibilities but a bit more character and script refining would be vital to make another movie work, along with the obligatory better acting and editing.
Words: Daniel Goodwin (@privateutopias)