Horror films used to play by the rules. These days, though, especially when they involve haunted houses, they often have a visually promiscuous, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink quality that toys with the audience in ways that don’t always fit together. (The audience’s attitude toward this smorgasbord-of-fear factor tends to be a shrug of “Whatever works.”) “The Bye Bye Man” falls somewhere in between those two poles. The movie lays down its rules and follows them, and then breaks them. Yet even when it seems to be making things up as it goes along, its slapdash hallucinatory quality is a token gesture toward placing you inside the characters’ heads.
In a rural area just outside Madison, three students at the University of Wisconsin — tall sexy geek Elliot (Douglas Smith), his come-hither girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), and his smooth jock BFF John (Lucien Laviscount) — arrange to room together off-campus in a rundown old mansion with rooms as big as barns. There is, of course, a spectral demon-monster on hand. He looks like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (right down to the pointing skeletal finger), with a face that’s all gray-skinned sutures, and a smile borrowed from Heath Ledger’s Joker. At first, we think he’s going to be the sort of shock-cut figment who pops up in the bathroom mirror, like Candyman or one of the ghosts from “Insidious.” As it turns out, though, he’s more like the film’s guiding spirit. He’s called the Bye Bye Man, and if you say his name out loud, even once, then — boom! — you’re doomed. He will enter your soul and turn you into a killer.
“The Bye Bye Man” is just okay enough to scare up a weekend’s worth of business, though after that it should burn out quickly. You can trace the premise right back to “The Shining” — to that scene where Jack Torrance, standing in the bathroom with the caretaker, enters his new reality of murder. But “The Bye Bye Man” offers the cut-rate, video-game version. What does it look like when the spirit of homicide takes you over? In this movie, the characters keep seeing things that aren’t there: maggots in someone’s hair; a bloody corpse rising up to attack; a train in the night heading toward three naked people; the woman you love having sex with someone else. All these things become an inspiration to murder. And I haven’t even mentioned the moment when Faye Dunaway catches fire! Looking as if she was carved out of wax, Dunaway plays the now-ancient wife of a man who, in 1969, was invaded by the spirit of the Bye Bye Man and blew away his neighbors and family members with a shotgun. He wrote out a message of warning (“Don’t say it! Don’t think it!”), which turns out to be the film’s mantra. It keeps showing up in circular scrawled patterns, like a crazier version of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
As long as it’s masquerading as the drama of a collegiate love affair, “The Bye Bye Man” isn’t as one-hundred-percent threadbare as these movies tend to be. Douglas Smith, best known for his work on HBO’s “Big Love” and “Vinyl,” is all chipper, gangly nerves as Elliot, who spends the movie running around attempting to save his relationship. His jealous suspicion that his buddy is trying to steal his girlfriend away makes you long for the days when a smart commercial filmmaker could take a situation like this one and squeeze some slow-cooked suspense out of it. Stacy Title, who directed “The Bye Bye Man,” tries to exploit the film’s human elements, and she’s canny about placing the camera so that a bedroom with creepy wallpaper looks like it’s getting ready to swallow the people in it. But basically “The Bye Bye Man” is post-psychological horror. It goes for the logic of momentary jolts, and for a tone of macabre youth-schlock sensation, like “The Conjuring” crossed with a “Final Destination” sequel.
In addition to Dunaway, Carrie-Anne Moss is on hand as the world’s most soft-edged hard-bitten police detective. But the actress in “The Bye Bye Man” who’s truly worth noting is the one who, all too briefly, steals the movie: Jenna Kanell, who plays Kim, the goth psychic college student who predicts everything bad that’s going to happen. Kanell has a brainy sensuality reminiscent of Rebecca Hall, and her scenes vibrate with tension. The movie ends up spinning around the corny question of whether this or that character will damn themselves by uttering the words “the Bye Bye Man.” But when Kanell turns into one of those people, it means something. You don’t want to say bye-bye to her.