While the idea of an entire movie about people getting killed for saying its title isn’t the easiest sell, “The Bye Bye Man” rises above those low expectations. The husband and wife team of director Stacy Title and screenwriter Jonathan Penner (“The Last Supper,” “Let The Devil Wear Black”) don’t break any rules, but they still manage to deliver an effective genre effort.
After a suburban husband goes on a rifling killing spree in the Pantone-colored past, we meet modern day Elliott (Douglas Smith) and Sasha (Cressida Bonas) as they sign a lease on a dilapidated brick dwelling big enough to contain their enormous love. It’s a fixer upper, and though they wonder why it’s so affordable, they’re too thrilled by the prospect of playing house to care. They find a stockpile of antique furniture down in the basement, and a few scary basement things happen, but Elliott, Sasha, and their roommate John (Lucien Laviscount) remain blissfully ignorant.
When they throw themselves a raging housewarming party, Elliott’s older brother Virgil (Nick Trucco) brings his family, including the adorable Alice (Erica Tremblay, sister of “Room” star Jacob). Bored by the party, Alice wanders into the bedroom, where she finds a gold coin and opens a small door. Behind her, a creature’s head briefly pops out — the first, jarringly obvious clue that something is definitely amiss.
Later that night, as Elliott and Sasha (like all college students do) study Rilke, they read aloud: “Fortune is truly like a coin tossed by the hand of god.” It would appear their coin has been tossed, and their fortune doesn’t look too good. When Elliott puts the gold coin back in the nightstand, he finds frenzied scrawling of, “don’t think it, don’t say it.” When he peels away the paper, carved into the wood are three capitalized words: BYE BYE MAN.
It’s not until later that night, when Sasha convinces the boys to let cute goth Kim (Jenna Kannell) lead a seance that Elliot says the name out loud for the first time. The lights extinguish, and from there the four college students begin to lose their minds in their own special ways.
Sasha is coughing and always feels cold, John is seeing maggots crawling out of people’s hair, and Elliott hears grating scratches all night long — not to mention a precariously placed long black robe keeps coming to life from its spot on the wall.
The tension mounts every time one of the gang says the name out loud, so much so that even Elliot’s cursory computer search for “The Bye Bye Man” has the power to draw ire from a rowdy theater crowd.
His search leads him to a jovial librarian named Mrs. Watkins (a scene-stealing Cleo King), who helps him uncover the story of a mysterious death that naturally explains the phenomenon at the center of the movie. And provides another excuse to say that name. Don’t expect “Candyman”-level subtlety, but the trick works more often than not.
“The Bye Bye Man” wastes no time shrouding major plot points in strange twists, the thrills and chills building throughout as it barrels toward the inevitable confrontation of its conclusion. Once revealed, the power of “The Bye Bye Man” is not diminished by a threadbare back story, and while the script’s attempts to find deeper meaning fall short of a Rilke-worthy epiphany, it’s just enough to knit the yarn with satisfying results.
The eternally fresh-faced Smith (also in “Miss Sloane”) keeps the movie together, as he convincingly evolves from starry-eyed lover to hollowed-out neurotic. Ever since “Big Love,” Smith has had to combat his All-American boyishness to show his chops. (Even the actor’s name — Douglas Smith — betrays him there.) “The Bye Bye Man” proves Smith is capable of more: holding his own against a criminally underused Carrie-Anne Moss (“The Matrix”) and a surprise appearance by no less than Faye Dunaway.
Led by a few strong performances, and delivering plenty of heart-clutching moments, “The Bye Bye Man” is sure to appeal to horror lovers of all stripes. Just don’t ask them to say the name.
“The Bye Bye Man” opens in theaters nationally Friday, January 13th.