The first rule of The Bye Bye Man is you can’t talk about the Bye Bye Man — at least, you shouldn’t mention him by name. That’s how he gets you. “Don’t think it, don’t say it,” the movie’s delirious victims all chant. “The more you think about him, the closer he gets.”
Saying or thinking about the Bye Bye Man indeed has fatal consequences. (RIP, by the way — see you down there.) Doing so invites this store-brand Slender Man — a spindly-limbed, audaciously pale coat rack of a villain — to haunt you. It sucks. He and his blood-thirsty hellhound stalk the corners of your bedroom and infiltrate your dreams with their bad vibes. You get driven mad by “Bye Bye Man,” the phrase, simply because you heard it; unable to un-hear it, you wind up wanting to kill everyone, like how we all felt in 2008, when “Hey Ya” was still a thing. Maybe it’s an allegory: Earworms are deadly.
The Bye Bye Man, which opens Friday, is 96 minutes of shadowy domestic horror, ably directed by Stacy Title off a script written by her husband, Survivor regular Jonathan Penner. It’s probably your best-case scenario for a horror release in early January: not good, but fun. It is pure and consistent enough in its thrills that every time a new character unknowingly utters the ghoul’s name, it sends a worried jolt through me. When a kid almost says it — Jesus. It sure as hell turns out to be bad news for the shotgun-toting maniac we meet at the start of the movie, a sweater-vested journalist who goes on an eight-person shooting spree, gunning down his neighbors before taking care of himself. The scene is set in 1969. What the shooter figured out — and what the movie’s present-day heroes, a trio of college students from Wisconsin, also find out the hard way — is that the Bye Bye Man is clingy. He literally cannot live without us: He exists only so long as he’s known. Hence, for the afflicted, the strategy is killing everyone who knows. In a sick way, these killing sprees are meant to save us.
As concepts go, it’s slyly modern. All the Bye Bye Man wants is to go viral, no? (The benefit of cribbing the look, demeanor, and M.O. of a meme like Slender Man is that the dude is pretty popular.) To its credit, what the movie really has up its sleeve is a half-baked idea or two about the crimes the people in the film wind up committing, killing all their loved ones and the like. I sensed something was up with the movie early on, when a few of its beats — the terror predicted beforehand by the friendly neighborhood psychic, the move to an almost too conveniently spacious (thus spooky) new house, the protagonist supernaturally driven to chase his loved ones around said house — seemed stacked in an overtly familiar direction. They’re all typical of the genre, sure. But in this movie’s case, all roads seem to lead specifically to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, a masterpiece whose terror is modeled so closely on familiar patterns of domestic abuse that even without its supernatural kink it might still be a pretty scary movie, just for different reasons. The Shining is in The Bye Bye Man’s DNA, down to the way Title makes the rooms in their new house feel as cavernous and creepily empty as the labyrinthine resort that greeted Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s movie.
Like The Shining, you can strip The Bye Bye Man of its supernatural hokum and still have a weirdly tense movie. It’d be a story in which a guy named Elliot movies into a house with his girlfriend, Sasha, and best friend, John, and, after a fit of sexual envy, winds up trying to kill them within a week. At its best, The Bye Bye Man plays like an off-kilter, soapy teen melodrama, the boyfriend and the best friend clashing over the girlfriend thanks, it turns out, to the Bye Bye Man’s psychological needling. But, really, what could make a guy want to kill everyone he loves? It’s a classic move of horror movies to take something we don’t understand — like, say, how it’s possible to go on a killing spree — and whittle away at its psychological reality, replacing reason with the supernatural. All it takes, in The Bye Bye Man’s case, are a few stray mentions of school shootings for you to see which cultural anxieties it’s leaning on. That doesn’t make it a good movie, but it does make it, at minimum, one whose premise understands how easily the terror of real life, stripped of reasonable explanation, can lend itself to horror and the uncanny.
That’s the good stuff. The bad stuff is, well, much of the actual movie, whose central stars don’t always seem to know what they’re doing — Cressida Bonas, who plays Sasha, idly couture-poses her way through some of her scenes, as if the movie were a runway audition. Lucien Laviscount, who plays John, has the toothless, studious sex appeal of a guy who’s about to drop Take Care; when Elliot gets jealous, you sort of get it, but not really. Not that any of that matters, really. The fun of a bad horror movie is that you half-play along: you openly deride it even as all the moldy wallpaper, creepy la-la music, and ominous radiator hisses subtly creep you out. There’s an art to being bad. The Bye Bye Man hasn’t studied that art — but it’s good enough to get you going.