Imagine the Grim Reaper reinvented by H.P. Lovecraft.
After leasing a house off-campus, college students Elliot (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and his best friend John (Lucien Laviscount), discover what a fixer-upper their new home really is. The trio hosts a small party after stocking the house with furniture found in the basement, but Sasha asks her paranormal-sensitive friend Kim (Jenna Kanell) to cleanse the location. In a doomed effort to prove to the boys that Kim is the real deal and Sasha isn’t imagining her dread, a make-shift séance ends in giving a malevolent force enough power to manifest into our reality: The Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones).
Trailers promise a standard staple for today’s horror thrillers: the curse that keeps on cursing. Faithful to its Japanese roots, these stories deal with a supernatural force or creature that spreads through an image, idea, or direct contact. The creature’s name is the method of delivery for this particular entity, one that gets into your head before tempting you to tell others. It’s all the same to him since he’s already got you, but this is the reverse of the demon trope where learning the name gives you power over it — like saying “Lord Voldemort” out loud in a Harry Potter story. Other than to appear and kill you, is there anything more to The Bye Bye Man?
Now firmly in the post-season dumping ground for small-budget cinematic fare, this new entry keeps mostly to the standard three-act plotline: discovery, research, and confrontation. Unlike the excellent It Follows, this thriller borrows from Sinister to perpetuate its languishing myth until it goes into In the Mouth of Madness mode. The horror effects are far more subtle and better edited than the suggested trailers, even cutting a few shots — if indeed those were ever intended for the film in the first place. Quick cuts and jump scares are the order of the day, but the film quickly creates an immersive atmosphere of creepiness, combining haunted house visuals with Doug Jones concealed in shadow; it’s possible you may not find all the places his title character can be found lurking in a single viewing.
While the three main characters are stocked with relative unknowns, many of the supporting players add weight to the casting. Cleo King oozes disbelief as a local librarian, Faye Dunaway adds a bit of historic background to the research phase, and Carrie-Anne Moss is bit too good for her role as a local police detective. While Douglas Smith gets the lion’s share of screen time as Elliot, none of the main cast gets enough development past a basic description, a problem It Follows never had. For a presumably first installment of a franchise, it’s really Doug Jones himself that chews the scenery, creeping in his perfect “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Gentleman-like way, making it feel like you never get to see enough of him. His CGI hell-hound is an interesting enough companion, but more practical effects could have improved the title character’s sidekick.
As is the custom, there isn’t much first-film explanation for the demonic rules or particular reasons for the signature visuals other than to continue the plot and/or announce the demon’s presence to the characters. Winding down to its denouement, there’s also a lot of unnecessary misdirection to suggest where future films might take this idea, but it seems a little off that the creature has so much influence in the real world before being called. The Cabin in the Woods suggests that it’s perfectly acceptable to push the potential victims into their transgression, and our villain is more than willing to stack the Tarot deck to make himself known. Come for the creepy atmosphere and stay for Doug Jones, but viewers not expecting too much more will get their matinée money’s worth.
The Bye Bye Man is rated PG-13 for terror, horror violence, bloody images, sexual content, thematic elements, partial nudity, some language, teen drinking, and a dilapidated house with way too many damn windows.
3 Skull Recommendation Out of Four