“The Bye Bye Man” sounds like a hooky three-minute ditty a Brill Building songwriter might have come up with in the 60s. But as presented in this slapdash serving of January horror, the title is no ear candy; it’s a name not to be sung, mentioned, heard, or imagined, or else you’ll go mad just thinking about what this nasty spirit is going to do to you.
Director Stacy Title’s (“The Last Supper”) bid for obsession-possession spookiness and boogeyman scares succumbs to the usual genre pitfalls: loud and empty shocks, monotony, and talk-explain-talk-explain scenes that drain the movie of any ghoulish mystery it might have held.
A queasy prologue, though, hints at a promisingly gnarly time, with a calm, sunny 1969 afternoon in a suburb of Madison, Wisc., broken by the appearance of a nervy, bespectacled man (played by Leigh Whannell, the writer behind the “Saw” and “Insidious” franchises) with a rifle, ranting and dead set on killing friends and family members. Though this is the PG-13 version of a horrifically brutal situation, it’s enough to prime your terror sensors for whatever supernatural awfulness is going to happen to the present-day college kids we’re introduced to immediately afterward: kind-faced Elliot (Douglas Smith, “Miss Sloane”), his fair-haired, soft-spoken girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and their friendly, party-hearty bud John (Lucien Laviscount, “Scream Queens”).
Patience first, though, as this cheery trio move into the run-down multi-story house that you know holds the source of all things bad. All the furniture’s in the basement, including a nightstand that winds up right next to Elliot’s and Sasha’s bed. Handwritten on the drawer lining in a circle are the words “don’t say it, don’t think it,” over and over — which, of course, one of them says aloud — and scrawled on the underside is the movie title, which, when spoken during a jokey “séance” with a goth-y self-proclaimed psychic named Kim (Jenna Kanell), causes the lights to go out and one of them to collapse. And then we’re off and running.
But not really, because the modus operandi of the tall, shrouded, long-fingered Bye Bye Man (wraithlike Guillermo del Toro regular Doug Jones) and his (digitally created) hellhound is to start slow and then make those who summon him see things that aren’t there, like an aperitif of figment jollies before the delusion-wrought violence. That means a long build-up of Elliot hearing scratching noises nobody else does, sex noises that don’t pan out, and thinking Sasha and John aren’t around when they really are.
Sasha and John have hallucinatory zone-outs, too, but they’re not particularly shiver-worthy, and Title is all too content to punch it all up with the bane of modern fright films: loud jolts of sound and volume-driven music.
What follows is the other fatal flaw in today’s multiplex hauntings: dull investigations and explanatory chitchat. There’s the clichéd library excursion, the old newspaper story with clues, skeptical law enforcement (in the form of Carrie Anne Moss), and a visit to a figure from the past, in this case a Bye Bye Man survivor played by Faye Dunaway, who gets to stand on a stairwell and regally bellow “Leave!” but not much else. (If this screen legend is counting on a “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”-style late-career horror comeback, it’ll have to wait.)
What’s been slowly murdering the tension, you realize as “The Bye Bye Man” enters its hopped-up home stretch, is the repetitiveness of the dialogue (by screenwriter Jonathan Penner, adapting a story by Robert Damon Schneck), which devolves into Elliot carrying on a running tour-guide monologue about who the Bye Bye Man is, how he operates, what one should and shouldn’t do, and how to stop him. It’s exhausting.
By the gruesomely determined end, “The Bye Bye Man” is more an energy-pumping exercise in climax management than something dread-inducing, and it’s genre-silly (especially when it comes to Bye Bye Man appearances) when it should be emotionally grave. Even the darkness in James Kniest’s (“Hush”) workmanlike cinematography feels forced rather than organic.
Though the movie’s intellectualization of what drives our worst impulses feels grounded in something psychologically astute about fear, it’s told more than shown or acted, and Title’s command of the material is haphazard, her direction not artful enough to know when expository clunkiness is undercutting the chance to dig into the meat of personalities in deterioration. “The Bye Bye Man” certainly wades into Polanski territory, but it suffers from a Freddy Krueger sheen and process-driven plotting.