College couple Elliot (Douglas Smith) and Sasha (Cressida Bonas), along with their jock pal John (Lucien Laviscount), ditch the dorms to rent a decrepit off-campus house near their university in Wisconsin. The home is filled with creepy old furniture in the basement, so no trip to IKEA is needed. Unfortunately, Elliot discovers that his nightstand drawer has a troubling warning scrawled inside—“Don’t think it, don’t say it”—and it reveals a further etching when ripped out: “THE BYE BYE MAN.” Their vaguely goth friend Kim (Jenna Kanell) just happens to be into the occult and hosts a séance to cleanse the house, which promptly summons the presence of this unspeakable supernatural figure into their lives.
As creepy occurrences and hallucinations begin to alter the foursome’s reality, they go looking for answers—a Google search! a library visit!—but the mystery remains elusive. Elliot tracks down a story about a newspaperman who was a victim of the Bye Bye Man in the 1960s (we first meet this character in a hokey, shotgun-blast-filled prologue). The journalist discovered that the only way to break the Bye Bye Man’s curse was to refrain from saying his name or even thinking about him, but when that failed, he killed everyone whom he ever uttered the specter’s name to, followed by himself. Elliot finds his widow (played by Faye Dunaway…why?), who sort of gives him some answers, but not really, as the flick stumbles into its ending.
The Bye Bye Man, an inconceivably dumb name for a feature film and its “spooky” central figure, quickly spirals into an unintelligible mess of formulaic plotting, thinly drawn characters, and just dreadful exposition. Director Stacy Title (working from her husband Jonathan Penner’s indolent script) doesn’t flesh out the origin story or motives of the titular reaper and his horribly CGI’d demon-dog companion, rendering the villain basically inert. Time that could be spent deepening the Bye Bye Man’s mythology (to, you know, elicit fear or raise the movie’s suspense) is instead used so characters can endlessly repeat that silly phrase, “Don’t think it, don’t say it.” So we don’t know where this third-rate boogeyman comes from, what he wants, or what his limitations or weaknesses are, just that if you speak or think his name you’ll eventually go crazy and kill everyone you know. It’s like It Follows—just minus any scares, smarts, good acting, or distinguishing style.
The Bye Bye Man is hampered by just about every aspect of its misbegotten conception, and is particularly neutered by its PG-13 rating. Gorehounds will go home empty-handed, while fans of psychological horror will be able to rattle off dozens of flicks that took the same basic idea and did it better. Viewers might be able to get some mild enjoyment out of this film if they view it as a campy car wreck, since there are decidedly more unintended laughs than desired frights during its 96 minutes. But as a work of horror, The Bye Bye Man is a sloppy, derivative collage of the worst studio-sanctioned genre trappings. The ending suggests a potential sequel (of course), a tease that will hopefully go unrealized for this January-dumping-ground dud.