On domestic talent disparities, horror plot structures, and finding half-tapped potential in unexpected places
The Bye Bye Man STX Entertainment
Director: Stacy Title
Screenplay: Jonathan Penner, based on The Bridge to Body Island, by Robert Damon Schneck
Starring: Douglas Smith, Cressida Bonas, Lucien Laviscount, Jenna Kanell, Michael Trucco, Cleo King, Carrie-Anne Moss and Faye Dunaway
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 36 minutes / 1.85:1
January 13, 2017
(out of four)
Imagine receiving a very bad gift from a loved one. There is no gift receipt; there is no possibility of exchange. Imagine you've been bestowed this gift in front of a whole audience full of people - millions of them, in fact. Not only that, but your name will be engraved on it and put on display - a permanent token of your association with this terrible, terrible gift. You never asked for this.
This is more or less the scenario I imagined after seeing, and then researching, The Bye Bye Man, a well-crafted horror film built on the foundation of a catastrophically bad script. Because it so happens that the director of the film, Stacy Title - the well-crafted part of this equation - is married to the writer of its catastrophic script, Jonathan Penner. "Oh, honey ... this is ... great ... I love it ... you shouldn't have." [forced smile, awkward pause, hug]
Whaddya gonna do. I wish them all the best, but for Title's sake I hope she can find better material in the future. Penner's screenplay is the epitome of bad horror screenplays, a dump truck of half-conceived ideas and hackneyed setups. The one where the protagonist looks things up on Google. The one where the characters telegraph the plot with an impromptu séance. The one where an old person arrives in the last 20 minutes to fill in expositional gaps. It's the kind of script that shouldn't have been greenlit in the first place, the result of systematically low expectations for studio horror screenplays, which so often seem to require nothing more than a reasonably sturdy structure. It asks nothing of its premise beyond the simple request to drive the story forward. It asks nothing of its characters beyond the willingness to be blandly archetypal.
The psychological paradox at the root of The Bye Bye Man - that, once you are aware of him/it by name, the only way you can survive is to neither think the name nor say it - is present in Penner's writing in only the most prosaic fashion. Which is to say, characters declare the rules by which the titular menace operates and then go about trying to outwit them. To Penner, the core concept is not psychological but procedural. He trades enigmatic terror for linear problem-solving.
Say what you will about the film's awful name or its January release date, there is something genuinely interesting in there, starting with the fact that the slasher of the title is, within the fabric of the narrative, an idea more than a reality. It shares a certain resemblance to David Robert Mitchell's It Follows - a presence that spreads through knowledge (intellectual in this case rather than carnal), something physical yet intangible that pursues and overcomes those targeted by it. Those who know its name. The cleanliness and precision of the way Mitchell's writing framed his ideas, through characters he understood and cared for, allowed him, behind the camera, to read between the lines of his own premise, expressing everything through a climate of melancholy existential dread.
Title may not be Mitchell's equal as a filmmaker, but she's also coming from a distinct comparative disadvantage; the script she was stuck with didn't provide her with anything but a plot structure. And yet she wrangled it into something with real psychological propulsion. You can see it right from the start, during a 1960s-set prologue in which an ordinary man tries to clean up his own Bye Bye mess. Shotgun in hand, he sets out to finish what he's started (the background will be filled in later), Title's camera stalking across the street alongside him in a tracking shot as eerie in its calm determination as the placid suburban ambience that surrounds it. "Who did you tell?" the man shouts, eager to find out just who - and just how many - he'll have to kill before, we gather, he turns the gun on himself.
"Don't say it, don't think it," he mutters to himself, a maxim that over the course of the film will be compulsively mumbled, scribbled on walls, etched into furniture.
Whatever happened on that afternoon in the '60s, we infer the man basically succeeded - in the decades since, no one, apparently, has uttered the moniker "The Bye Bye Man," because he's been dormant between then and the present-day in which the movie takes place. (It's unclear whether someone saying "Bye-bye, man" as a casual valediction would be enough to conjure the dude, but my guess is that's a loophole that's been closed.) But, like the rogue modern penny hiding in the suit pocket at the end of Somewhere in Time, one piece of evidence of The Bye Bye Man's existence was overlooked, left behind, unaccounted for. It's merely a nightstand, but hiding inside it is that fateful name, scratched into the wood and lazily covered up, just waiting for someone to discover it.
The lucky winner is Elliot (Douglas Smith), a college kid renting a creepy old house with his best friend and his best girl, and who quite accidentally discovers the etching inside the nightstand, its power unbeknownst to him. That power soon makes itself clear, and he discovers exactly the rules he must abide by - "Don't say it, don't think it" - to keep it at bay. Problem is, The Bye Bye Man - his faithful, skinless hound by his side at all times - is something of a master in cognitive manipulation. Once Elliot and Co. - girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), buddy John (Lucien Laviscount), weird goth friend Kim (Jenna Kanell) - hear the name, they're susceptible to its manipulations. The Bye Bye Man makes them see things that exploit their subconscious fears and desires, pitting them against each other in order to spread the good word.
I'd have to imagine, if you're a supernatural serial killer, there's a better way to accomplish the relatively simple task of having your name learned and repeated. I mean, the fact that Elliot's Google search for "Bye Bye Man" yields no results is just a colossal SEO failure - and by extension a failure of branding. If he really wants to be one of the heavyweights, he's going to have to learn how to diversify. Then again, he may just be a creature of habit.
In any case, the plot evolves exactly the way we expect it to once the basic facts are introduced. But it works in moods and moments, owing almost entirely to Title's direction. There's a remarkable shot early on, once the happy trio has just moved into the new house, of the master bedroom, center-framed, in which she focuses our attention on the right side of the frame while, with a fluidity of movement almost imperceptible, a deeply unsettling image appears on the far left of the shot, and then just as fluidly disappears.
Later on, when we flash back to the beginnings of that suburban massacre, back to where it all started, Title gives us a 360-degree view of the man's home - its walls covered top to bottom with repetitions of that self-taught imperative, "Don't say it, don't think it." It's a striking sequence, the camera turning and turning back and lingering as if it has a consciousness of its own - one uniquely in tune with this cursed man, and one even sympathetic to what he's about to do with that shotgun.
There are moments throughout The Bye Bye Man that speak volumes entirely on the strength of how they're composed and edited; Title's work here deserves attention. But it also deserves more help. She's stuck with too severe a built-in handicap. Not just stuck with, but married to. The film may, to a large extent, be exactly the kind of drivel people expect of January horror, but its big secret is it had the surprising potential to be more than that.