The Bye Bye Man opens intriguingly enough. In a flashback to 1968, an as-yet-unidentified man (Leigh Whannell) kills a number of people in their homes in what appears to be a psychotic episode. Wiping people out as he furiously interrogates them about whether they’ve said aloud a name they’re apparently forbidden from repeating, it turns out that He Who Shall Not Be Named is the demonic entity The Bye Bye Man. We don’t know it yet, but this is our first glimpse into the film’s bizarre central conceit, which from here on out is at best non-threateningly daft, and at worst a narrative and logical black hole.
Fast forward to the present day, and student Elliot (Douglas Smith, Ouija, Stage Fright) is moving in to a house off campus with his best friend John (Scream Queens‘ Lucien Laviscount) and his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas). Given how many recent wide-release horror films have been loaded with borderline unwatchable college-age protagonists, The Bye Bye Man deserves some credit for at least trying to make its main characters likeable, with the film’s first act offering some enjoyable back-and-forth between the three. While the seeds are planted about a possible spark between John and Sasha, more immediate problems arise shortly after their arrival at the house: Sasha develops a mystery illness, and Elliot discovers the words “don’t think it, don’t say it” scrawled all over the inside of his nightstand. Just Elliot’s luck, then, that the very name that the author was determined to neither think nor say was also carved into the wood.
It’s around this time that Groan-Inducing Horror Trope #1 is introduced: the seance. Led by Sasha’s friend Kim (Jenna Kanell), it provides the first of several unintentionally comedic “uh ooooh” moments when Elliot says The Bye Bye Man’s name aloud in the circle. This, it would appear, is the titular spectre’s cue to show up and begin terrorising the housemates, and the more they think about him, the more power he amasses.
It’s difficult to comment too much on The Bye Bye Man without getting bogged down in picking apart the plot. This is challenging on a number of levels, but most significantly because for large periods, the film is almost totally incoherent. From the perspective of the main characters, the threat posed by The Bye Bye Man goes from “abstract concept requiring additional research” to “clear and present danger that we all have a surprisingly sophisticated knowledge of” so rapidly that you’ll wonder if twenty minutes of exposition are missing. The pacing is off across the board, with hurried moments such as these coming off the back of long spells of leaden-footed inactivity, where unassimilated spooky goings-on occur without ever really adding up to much. Characters veer from knowledgeable to idiotic depending on what best serves the flimsy plot, and as soon as the threat in the film is established, any chemistry that did exist between the film’s lead players is crushed by the seemingly overpowering need to replace actual dialogue with CliffNotes-style plot point summaries.
The Bye Bye Man handles even its most base-level elements with a frustrating passivity. Its jump scares are limp and ineffective, the rules it sets for itself are maddeningly vague and contradictory, and when it writes itself into a corner, it relies on wheeling out a new character on the hour mark (played, somewhat bafflingly, by Faye Dunaway) to clumsily fill in the blanks to set up its ending, where even its final-frame stinger is mishandled and underwhelming. Taking a promising opening third and squandering it with almost military precision, The Bye Bye Man is too stupid to function as a horror film, and takes itself far too seriously to work as an exercise in cheap, B-movie thrills.