The horror genre has a long tradition of torturing its young protagonists, punishing them for indulging their curiosities about the impending freedoms of adulthood. Forays into the realm of the unsupervised are often fueled by booze, sex, and drugs, with characters cutting loose and breaking rules before their inevitable slaughter by some ghoulie lurking just off screen. The young people in director Stacy Title’s The Bye Bye Man, however, are notable for mostly having their shit together, at least on the surface.
Elliot (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and his childhood best friend, John (Lucien Laviscount), are college students in Wisconsin who decide to rent a suspiciously large house together off campus in an effort to simulate the adult lives they already feel prepared for. Saddled with a wife and daughter, Elliot’s older brother, Virgil (Michael Trucco), attends the trio’s housewarming party and warns Elliot about the dangers of growing up too quickly. “I missed out on all this,” he says, gesturing expansively to include all of the young, attractive, boozed-up guests, implying that his little brother should enjoy his freedom before settling down, even though Elliot insists all he wants is to start a family. Then both of them watch Sasha and John dancing together, perhaps salaciously, while Virgil quips, “Good thing you’re not the jealous type,” planting the seeds of the film’s ultimate assertion that maybe these characters aren’t as well-adjusted as they imagine themselves to be.
Enter the Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones), a haunting that gets inside the heads of his victims and refuses to relinquish control, his power increasing with every utterance—and every thought—of his name. The hopeless refrain of his victims is “Don’t say it, don’t think it,” even as they realize the impossibility of that task once the haunting has taken hold in their psyche. The Bye Bye Man forces his victims to imagine horrors beyond their wildest dreams and drives them to commit terrible acts against themselves and others, and the only way to stop him is to kill everyone who knows his name.
The film’s opening sequence is a harrowing flashback to the most recent mass murder inspired by the necessity of eliminating the Bye Bye Man once and for all, but the titular horror is resurrected when Elliot sees the seemingly innocuous name carved into the drawer of a nightstand in the newly rented house (a piece of furniture previously owned by the mass murderer in the flashback, it turns out). Elliot repeats the name out loud to his friends during a séance following the housewarming party, which begins as a ritual cleansing of the house at Sasha’s request—she’s heard a few spooky noises and doesn’t want to take any chances—but becomes much more sinister once the Bye Bye Man enters the fray. What follows is the rapid disintegration of the film’s central relationships: Elliot begins to suspect John and Sasha of having a secret love affair, suspicions inspired by false images and sounds produced by the Bye Bye Man, and all three of the house’s new residents are quickly undone by the Bye Bye Man’s influence on their thoughts and actions.
Horror films have always fetishized old, strange houses, and The Bye Bye Man makes full use of secret doorways and dark basements to stack the tangible unknown onto that of the supernatural. The house here, with its massive yet sparely furnished rooms, creepy canted ceilings, and strange passageways between its walls, is shot dramatically and effectively, the atmosphere somehow both cavernous and claustrophobic. But the slick scares—cloaked figures appearing in dark corners, the eyes of a strange beast glowing from inside a crawlspace—never amount to anything more than the standard fare which is far more reliant on abrupt juxtapositions and lazy sound effects than on any greater sense of psychological turmoil.
The film suffers from unintentional or at least tonally dissonant humor, mostly in scenes involving a librarian (Cleo King) who becomes accidentally embroiled in the whole ordeal after helping Elliot research the Bye Bye Man’s origins. But a bigger problem is a villain with seemingly no raison d’etre beyond a primal desire for power and destruction. The best horror villains have reductive yet resonant motives for the carnage they leave in their wake, but the Bye Bye Man is simply a conduit for self-doubt, which turns out to be the ultimate killer. Elliot’s desire to live an adult life with the girl he loves is thwarted by his own secret doubts about his relationship—doubts which the Bye Bye Man latches onto and exacerbates—and his ultimate downfall is the acceptance, rather than disavowal, of the images haunting his brain.
Without a complicated villain to add nuance to the otherwise utterly conventional surface, though, the film falls short by relying too much on Elliot’s anxieties to fuel the narrative. Bizarre cameos by Faye Dunaway and Carrie-Anne Moss fail to elevate the film’s conclusion to anything more than a frantic array of moving parts seeking to distract audiences from the fact that nothing much is actually happening, and The Bye Bye Man ends up succeeding most deftly as an advertisement for on-campus housing.