The Bye Bye Man is the rare bad movie whose staggering level of ineptitude is practically a recommendation. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi to this particular style of badness, a quality so ineffable that merely listing out the endless ways in which it stumbles and falls flat on its stupid, stupid face doesn’t do it justice. The film’s individual parts work in unison to render it an awe-inspiring catastrophe. Director Stacy Title and writer Jonathan Penner probably didn’t set out to make a movie this godawful, but it seems that their crude amalgam of Sinister, It Follows, A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Babadook revolted against them in production and escaped into theaters as a vulgar, misshapen mess of unintended comedy and melodrama.
Saying that The Bye Bye Man lacks the artistry and craft of its influences would be the biggest “no shit” statement of 2017 to date, but so it goes. Our protagonists, young lovers Elliot (Douglas Smith) and Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and Elliot’s best bro, John (Lucien Laviscount), go to college in Michigan and move into a decrepit off-campus house, where they’re set upon by a mysterious, evil entity (played by the great Doug Jones with admirable but fruitless gravitas) that grows stronger the more they deny its existence, and which they can’t get rid of no matter what they do. That’s The Bye Bye Man in summation, a rip-off of horror’s modern paragons as well as its bygone icons, and yet it’s so much more than that by way of inanity.
We’re in a fertile period for horror thanks to filmmakers who use the genre to filter universal human struggles through macabre symbolism, where skeletons, spirits and haunts aren’t merely markers of the supernatural but obstacles to personal catharses: The true monster isn’t the monster itself, but parenthood, coming of age, or cultural superstition. The Bye Bye Man is absent of that sort of profound, overarching artistic statement, which in its own way is refreshing, and instead treats its boogeyman as the unseen impetus behind random acts of inexplicable violence. How could your unassuming neighbor have had it in him to gun down two households’ worth of people living on your idyllic suburban block? Easy: The Bye Bye Man made him do it, driving him out of his mind via an onslaught of gruesome, paranoia-inducing hallucinations.
It’s a fine enough horror premise, but the more Title and Penner attempt to expound on the Bye Bye Man’s legend, the worse the film becomes. Say his name aloud and he knows where to find you. Coins that appear out of thin air tell of his coming, except they start showing up willy-nilly well before anyone actually says his name aloud. He also has a dog that stares at you menacingly from the darkness of your closet and eats your corpse after you finally die, and that detail—like all of the details that comprise the Bye Bye Man’s M.O.—adds up to exactly less than nothing of value. We’re more in the weeds with the Bye Bye Man than Kate McKinnon and Beck Bennett were with David S. Pumpkins.
So both the film and its villain fall pathetically, amusingly short of their inspirations. Unlike, say, Freddy Krueger, the Bye Bye Man has no greater objective than ruining your life and gloatingly poking you in the forehead at the height of your anguish. Sure, he torments his victims with disturbing visions until they lose their marbles, and sure, those visions tend to trick them into engineering their own doom. But he also gives Sasha a nasty case of the sniffles and strikes John with ED. All told, he’s more of an asshole than an existential threat. Krueger has goals. The Bye Bye Man has bupkis other than an easily mocked moniker and an unfashionable Grim Reaper cloak used solely to stage clichéd jump scares.
On paper, The Bye Bye Man sounds like workaday rubbish. In practice, it’s a fiasco that borders on the majestic. You can sense that Title and Penner, who adapted his script from a chapter in Robert Damon Schneck’s nonfiction novel The President’s Vampire (which sounds not at all like nonfiction), take the material seriously, but it gets away from them at the movie’s start and dives off the goofy deep end into sidesplitting hilarity. Character deaths play like punch lines, the dialogue ranges between tone-deafness and awkward bombast, and on top of that, how else can we react to a bugbear called “the Bye Bye Man” other than by laughing? The film is calamity in motion, an explicit failure that’s worth savoring. This isn’t badness that demands neglect. It’s badness that demands appreciation.
Director: Stacy Title
Writer: Jonathan Penner
Starring: Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas, Doug Jones, Carrie-Anne Moss, Michael Trucco, Faye Dunaway, Cleo King
Release Date: Jan. 13, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.