A long-buried urban legend is awoken nearly fifty years after a bizarre mass-murder/suicide in "The Bye Bye Man," a creepy, creeping horror yarn directed by Stacy Title (1996's excellent indie "The Last Supper") and written by her husband, Jonathan Penner. Based on the short story "The Bridge to Body Island" by Robert Damon Schneck, the film gets plenty of unnerving mileage out of the central conceit of its title and the warning that comes with this hooded reaper's name: "Don't say it, don't think it." The put-upon souls who learn this boogeyman's moniker and wish they hadn't? That would be Buchanan Williams University students Elliot (Douglas Smith) and his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and best friend John (Lucien Laviscount). They have broke free of the campus dorms and just moved into a run-down but spacious country home, fully furnished but coming with a nightstand cursed with the forbidden words. Once they learn them, there's no turning back, their knowledge of this malevolent force breeding a series of deadly psychological games from which there is no easy escape.
It may be PG-13 and it may be seeing a theatrical release in the notoriously bleak cinematic landscape that is January, but "The Bye Bye Man" is a vividly mounted, dread-inducing horror film done right. With precious few cheap jump scares to be found, the picture relies instead on the craft of solid, old-fashioned storytelling. Like an age-old campfire tale only now coming to fruition, The Bye Bye Man (Doug Jones) and his pet demon hound are kept predominately in the shadows, the lore surrounding them touched upon but also left wisely obscured. Title and Penner are savvy in their understanding that less exposition is better than an overload of it, and so while Elliot and Sasha seek to investigate the origin of their haunters, it never threatens becoming a slog.
The terrors they face, much of them bred from their toyed minds, leave them questioning their trust of loved ones and the insanity destined to spread to anyone and everyone who discovers the name they shouldn't say and cannot stop thinking about. A focus on mood, on handsome style, and on character keeps the narrative tight and involving, while the simplest of imagery, like a dark cloak hanging on a hook and a bedroom with two small "Alice in Wonderland"-style doors leading to who-knows-what, provide ample chills. It's a pleasure when filmmakers trust their audience and know how to weave a jittery spell without forcing a cavalcade of forced shock tactics on them, and director Stacy Title is one such talent.
The cast is solid across the board, happy to have more to do than simply walk around light-deficient rooms and wait for something to pounce. Douglas Smith (2014's "Ouija
"), whose Elliot has faced tragedy in his past and wants the happy domestic life his protective older brother, Virgil (Michael Trucco), has found, is an engaging, sympathetic protagonist. Newcomer Cressida Bonas is equally warm and likable as girlfriend Sasha, while Jenna Kanell grabs one's attention in her scenes as psychic friend Kim. Also making notable impressions: Carrie-Anne Moss (2014's "Pompeii
") as Detective Shaw, yearning to uncover a secret Elliot makes clear she should never know; reliable scene-stealer Cleo King (2014's "Transformers: Age of Extinction
") as librarian Ms. Watkins, who assists Elliot in his research; Leigh Whannell (2015's "Insidious: Chapter 3
"), whose unhinged newspaper journalist Larry Redmon kicks off the film with a frightening jolt, and screen legend Faye Dunaway (2002's "The Rules of Attraction
") as Larry's widow, carrying with her the terrible memories of the fateful day she lost her husband.
"The more you think about him," a distraught Kim says, "the closer he gets." And, naturally, the more Elliot and his friends try not to think about him, he's the only thing they can
think about. "The Bye Bye Man" hooks the viewer from the opening scene and, quite surprisingly, rarely lets go or steps wrong (only a few, thankfully brief moments of questionable CGI break the spell). The film isn't about splashy special effects, anyway. It's about lonesome atmosphere, and fear of the unknown, and innocent people thrust into a nightmare they, like the audience, have no way of fully comprehending. It's a specific, nagging pall of portent one yearns for from their genre fare, and one that the deliciously macabre "The Bye Bye Man" delivers time and again.