Producer: Simon Horsman, Trevor Macy and Jeffrey Soros
Director: Stacy Title
Writer: Jonathan Penner
Stars: Douglas Smith, Lucien Louiscount, Cressida Bonas, Jenna Kanell, Doug Jones, Michael Trucco, Erica Tremblay, Cleo King, Leigh Whannell, Carrie-Anne Moss and Faye Dunaway
Studio: STX Entertainment
The Friday the 13th weekend is a great time to enjoy a good, scary horror movie, but unfortunately the only one opening this year is Stacy Title’s “The Bye Bye Man,” adapted by Jonathan Penner from “The Bridge to Body Island,” a story by paranormal-tale collector Robert Damon Schneck. A grab-bag of hand-me-down horror movie clichés confusedly stitched together without much visual flair, the movie reduces a fairly interesting premise to pedestrian genre pulp.
As refashioned by Penner, the picture opens decades in the past, when a reporter named Redmon (Leigh Whannell, one of the original “Saw” creators) goes on a killing spree ending in suicide, muttering the movie’s advertising tagline, “Don’t think it. Don’t say it.” Cut to the present, where college couple Elliot (Douglas Smith) and Sasha (Cressida Bonas) are renting an isolated old house, along with Elliot’s best buddy John (Lucien Louiscount). Almost immediately, however, creepy things start happening—scratching noises, a persistently reappearing old coin, nightmares about an oncoming train, and most importantly, the “don’t” message scribbled repeatedly on the bottom of a drawer in a hand-me-down nightstand, along with the phrase “The Bye Bye Man.” Skeptical Elliot makes the mistake of saying those words during a séance conducted by Sasha’s “sensitive” friend Kim (Jenna Kanell), which brings the titular figure—a ghoulishly cloaked reaper type (Doug Jones, not nearly as frightening as he’s needed to be) accompanied by a sort of hell-hound (rendered in execrable CGI)—into their lives, big-time.
This is one bad dude. The idea is that whoever hears his name becomes a welcoming host; he invades their perception of things, making them see things that aren’t there—and driving them into a murderous rage. That notion isn’t new—“A Nightmare on Elm Street 2” toyed with the idea, as did the recent “Lights Out”—but here it becomes more explicit, leading to the rather unsavory conclusion that mass killings aren’t really the result of natural mental disorder, but are caused by a malignant supernatural force compelling the perpetrators to their acts.
Thinking along those lines, however, is to give “The Bye Bye Man” entirely too much credit for intellectual depth (even though it occasionally raises philosophical questions—as in a classroom scene—only to drop them abruptly). It’s designed merely as a shock machine, and in that respect it isn’t very effective. Title’s direction is lackadaisical (it’s now difficult to remember that she once made a much more interesting film, “The Last Supper”), James Kneist’s cinematography bland, and Ken Blackwell’s editing insufficiently crisp; even the music by The Newton Brothers offers nothing new. The movie’s greatest virtue lies in the performance of Smith, a boyish fellow (despite being more than thirty years old) who brings some genuine intensity to Elliot, even at the most ridiculous moments (like those involving a loquacious librarian, broadly played by Cleo King). By contrast Louiscount and Bonas are pretty drab and Carrie-Anne Moss, as an impassive cop, simply dull, though Kanell and Whannell even things out, after a fashion, with big, over-the-top turns.
A similar way-out vibe is generated by Faye Dunaway, who shows up in a cameo toward the close as Redmon’s reclusive widow. The scene proves that the veteran actress has definitely entered her “late period Bette Davis” phase, the era of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” and the like. One other member of the cast should be singled out: young Erica Tremblay, who plays Elliot’s supposedly adorable niece. She easily proves one of the most irritating tykes seen onscreen in quite some time, every bit as bad as her brother Jacob was good in “Room.”
“The Bye Bye Man” is clearly designed as the start of a franchise, but it would be a surprise if it didn’t bid theatres a quick farewell without spawning any sequels. As it happens, its promotional tagline turns out to be incomplete: “Don’t think it, don’t say it” should really be expanded with “don’t see it.”