Moving into an off-campus house, three college students find themselves the latest target of a demon.
Review by Eric Hillis
Directed by: Stacy Title
Starring: Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas, Doug Jones, Carrie Anne Moss, Faye Dunaway, Leigh Whannell
Director Stacy Title made a splash on the prosperous 1990s US indie scene with her sophomore film, 1995's The Last Supper, only to promptly disappear into straight to video obscurity immediately after; you can draw your own conclusions as to why she wasn't afforded the opportunities of her '90s indie counterparts. The story of a group of young liberals who host a series of dinner parties with soon to be murdered right-wing extremists as the guests of honour, it's a movie that's taken on a whole new life over the past year. With her first movie in a decade, The Bye Bye Man, Title is once again tackling controversial and divisive issues, though this time she disguises them in an otherwise mediocre horror narrative.
As so many horror movies are wont to do, The Bye Bye Man opens with a flashback to a traumatic event. In 1969 Madison, Wisconsin, a sweaty man (James Wan's cohort Leigh Whannell) wanders his suburban neighbourhood with a shotgun, asking his neighbours the cryptic question "Who did you tell?", before blasting them into the next world, all the while muttering the mantra "Don't think it, don't say it!"
Cut to present day Madison, where three college students - white couple Elliott (Douglas Smith) and Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and their black friend John (Lucien Laviscount, which might be the most British actor's name since Benedict Cumberbatch) - move into the same neighbourhood.
The trouble begins when Elliott finds some graffiti scrawled in his bedside locker, the phrase "Don't think it, don't say it!" scrawled over and over Jack Torrance style; somebody didn't get their security deposit back.
Elliott begins to investigate and learns the legend of 'The Bye Bye Man', a demon accompanied by a grotesque hell-hound (and played by Pinhead himself, Doug Jones), who comes looking for anyone who mentions his name. Elliott knows he and his housemates are doomed, but how can he convince anyone to believe him? Poor Elliott gets so stressed out he begins the movie looking like Anton Yelchin and ends it looking like Dane DeHaan.
As a horror movie and potential franchise starter, The Bye Bye Man is a mess. The script, penned by Title's husband Jonathan Penner, is a lazy attempt to create a mythology (one that's really little more than a Candyman knockoff) that fails to establish its villain beyond his silly name and sinister look. Title does enough to show she has the chops to create some creepy moments, but those moments - chiefly featuring the titular spook lurking in the corner of the frame - are all too rare.
It doesn't take long for it to become clear that Title has little concern in the surface horror story on offer here; she's more interested in using the conceit to explore some controversial racial and sexual politics through a subtext that's so explicit it threatens to overwhelm the film, though frankly, the movie is greatly improved by this added dimension.
If you look past the surface text, The Bye Bye Man is essentially the story of a white couple whose relationship is tested by their perceived virility of their black housemate. When we first meet the trio, they're exploring the dusty basement of their new home, John fondling every piece of bric-a-brac he finds; "He touches everything," remarks Elliott, in a worried tone. At the housewarming party, Elliott watches on as John dances with Sasha; "Just as well you're not jealous," a partygoer notes. That night, John takes a girl, psychic goth Kim (Jena Kannell), to his room, and as Elliott walks past his bedroom door he hears the loud sounds of manic love-making. Crawling back into his bed, he tells Sasha he loves her. She replies, "I love you John". The next morning, Sasha hallucinates a naked John beckoning her to forget about Elliott and get it on with him. The two begin to see black phallic symbols everywhere, from the vision of a long oncoming train to the dressing gown that hangs in their bedroom in such a way as it resembles a giant black dildo. "The more I try not to think about it, the bigger it gets in my mind," Sasha says; she's speaking of The Bye Bye Man, or is she?
John is far from the mythical figure of black male virility his white housemates believe him to be. When we see him with his one-night-stand partner, Kim, the following morning, we learn he failed to perform, and her attempts to console him only wound his male ego all the more. John claims he was turned off because Kim was 'dirty', and later he's plagued by visions of the girl soaked in (menstrual?) blood. Seems John has his own sexual hangups.
As the movie progresses, and Elliott grows more and more paranoid, we begin to question if he's jealous of John or Sasha, and late on when he orders his girlfriend not to touch his housemate, we're not sure which way to take this (The Bi Bi Man?).
This added subtextual layer makes The Bye Bye Man a fascinating watch for anyone willing to engage with it, an example of how diversity behind and in front of the camera can elevate genre mediocrity. In the current climate, filmmakers will no doubt wish to explore uncomfortable issues of race, sex and identity, and we'll likely see more filmmakers like Title use the horror genre to sneak in their agenda. I'll take that over cattle-prod jump scares any day.
The Bye Bye Man is in UK/ROI cinemas now.