First things first, let’s get it out of the way — “The Bye Bye Man” is an absolutely ludicrous title for a horror movie. However, it’s pretty obvious that the filmmakers are in on the joke. If we’re laughing, it’s with the movie, not at it. The most fun horror movies are often the ones that deliver laughs and scares hand in hand, albeit totally straight-faced.
The tale comes from a chapter titled “The Bridge to Body Island” in Robert Damon Schneck’s book “The President’s Vampire,” adapted for the screen by Jonathan Penner. So who is the Bye Bye Man and what does he want? That’s neither here nor there, but if you so much as utter his name, your worst, most paranoid violent fantasies seemingly become real.
In a prologue set in 1969, we see what senseless violence the Bye Bye Man can inspire. Since then he’s been mostly dormant until now, when a trio of comely college kids rents a spooky old house (first bad idea), complete with ancient furniture, including an old nightstand inscribed with the warning, “don’t say it, don’t think it,” and then, unhelpfully, the ghoul’s name. Bad things ensue. Usually the worst-case scenario with hand-me-down furniture is bed bugs.
The college setting and young-adult protagonists give the movie the feel of ’90s horror classics like “I Know What You Did Last Summer.” Co-star Jenna Kanell perfectly channels Neve Campbell from “The Craft” as she channels energy in the spiritually compromised house. There’s a frisson of sexuality underlying this spooky possession flick, something that’s been missing from many PG-13 horror films of late.
“The Bye Bye Man” is cheesy, but it feels knowingly cheesy, with a heavy dose of wink-wink, nudge-nudge from the filmmakers. Director Stacy Title, who has three horror features under her belt, relies on visual jokes throughout, and her direction has confidence and an assured fluidity, with elaborate camera movements and dynamic editing. Even the somewhat terrible performances and breathless, repeated utterances of “Bye Bye Man!” seem to be a part of the film’s self-referential approach.
Yet there is genuine tension to be wrought from the rather thin concept. The most suspense comes from the few scenes in which an authority figure, such as a detective played by Carrie-Anne Moss, or a loved one, beseeches Elliot (Douglas Smith) — who released the Bye Bye Man — to tell them what’s going on. Smith is appropriately plaintive and distraught over the idea of unleashing mental hell and certain death onto innocent people, and the panicked back and forth reaches unbearably uncomfortable levels.
Ultimately, the moral is one that’s as old as Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Who or what is the Bye Bye Man? He’s your worst fears, coalesced and congealed into a Voldemort, another villain who could never be named. If fear gets the best of you, it’s a destruction of the self, a disease that spreads with a whisper. Now there’s an ironically appropriate message to ponder as we kick off 2017 in America. So despite any titular trepidation, there is fun to be had and even some cultural relevancy if you decide to say hi to “The Bye Bye Man.”
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
‘The Bye Bye Man’
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Rating: PG-13, for terror, horror violence, bloody images, sexual content, thematic elements, partial nudity, some language and teen drinking
Playing: In general release