Whether or not I have high expectations for an imminent horror movie, I always look forward to a night at the theater to delve into dark, mysterious, sometimes insidious horror movie themes. And I think since I’ve started this blog, I’ve been an easy customer to please: I tend to like horror movies, and I tend to give them good reviews, although there are notable exceptions to this trend. That is, take your semi-decent, run-of-the-mill jump scare flick: I generally enjoy it—and state so, on this blog. But when I saw an early showing of The Bye Bye Man Thursday night, I felt a culmination of all the slowly growing horror-related restlessness that had been building up in my psyche. I had a feeling that The Bye Bye Man would prove to be just what I expected, and it was, except it was maybe a little less scary. But oh—how I wanted something different. Rare and wonderful is the surprisingly artistic horror movie that floats to the surface of the murky Hollywood horror swamp and blows my unsuspecting hair back. And as rare as that phenomena is, it does happen, and that is, naively, what I was hoping for Thursday night.
But I think this story really goes back much further than Thursday night, which was an evening that played out, film-wise, just as I’d expected. Really the story reaches further back, back to the first horror movie I ever saw and—if I were less solipsistic and more informed about the genre—back to the first horror movies that were made for the silver screen. Horror movies are a thing of wonder to the young, titillated, new viewer, especially because there is a deep, complex pantheon of options existent for the to-be connoisseur. I will never remember for certain which I saw first, but I think it was Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, sprawled out on my parents’ old blue leather couch one summer night when I was about twelve. The film seemed a thing of magic at the time, and not just because it was scary. No, for, as I would come to learn later, scary is not so hard to achieve in a horror movie; uniquely and artfully scary is a little bit harder. Bram Stoker’s Dracula took me vividly with Jonathan Harker across the Carpathian Mountains, and then to downtown London in the late 1800’s with Lucy. I’ve never reviewed the film on this site, and it’s not without its flaws—it’s a little drawn out and makes some unique detours from the original text—but it’s so unabashedly itself, so flagrantly different from other horror movies. So far as I can tell, it took only a bit of inspiration from earlier Dracula movies, which it changed, and the mood and general ambience of Bram Stoker’s Dracula were ultimately much different. It was one of the first films that got me excited about the horror genre.
My next horror film was The Shining which I wrote about briefly when I started this blog. I probably need not tell the viewer how quickly and with terrifying vividness I was catapulted to the majestic, secluded Overlook Hotel in the middle of a cold, dead Colorado winter circa 1980. If one wants to discuss how horror movies can be artistically complex, one need look no further than the astounding acting, intricate, disorienting scenery, and overall careful directing of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining—a film which I can, and have, watched over and over again since I first viewed it. I will always remember with what marked terror I saw the two ghostly twins lingering in Danny’s line of vision at the far end of the hall, or how absolutely, inconceivably horrified I was when the beautiful naked woman who Jack sees in room 237 turns into a mass of laughing, decaying rot. I remembered the scene with florid terror in the shower the next morning, but that subtle dread that lingers after a really powerful horror movie was a bizarre thing of beauty to me; I’d gotten a temporary fix, and I was going to need more. How quickly and easily, how readily, I was torn from the tethers of the sometimes dust-gray world when I entered the world of the horror movie. How like a drug, it was – and still is – the anticipation of the wonderfully terrible.
Any horror fan will have his or her recollections of the first film she’s ever seen. I would go on, after The Shining, to continue exploring Stephen King, both in books, and in movies like Carrie, Pet Sematary, and Children of the Corn. I laughed as I watched Regan’s head spin in The Exorcist, because for as scary as the movie was, there was something oddly funny about demonic possession. My point, here, is that I watched a variety of horror movies –and have continued ever since—but at some point, the genre “horror” to me stopped representing mostly a complex, diverse body of art. Instead, the word “horror” often means the past—the good movies of yore—and the present, which is an amalgamation of a few artistic pieces of brilliance and a barrage of formulaic jump scare pieces that all look so similar they run together and coalesce into one bumbling, growling cinematic monstrosity.
Take the Insidious series and The Conjuring series; I’ve given them good reviews, and I’ll stand by those reviews; they’re the best, the most carefully done with the scariest scares and the deepest characters, of a given type—the formulaic, jump-scare horror movie. This horror film usually involves families or college students and you can sort of predict what you’re getting into when you sit down to watch it – a movie built around slowly escalating scenes during which the ghost, creature, etc, will be revealed more and more often, and more and more quickly. Some combination of characters will usually die, but a few may live. Generally, there’s not much character depth or complexity, and the scenery is pretty stock and standard – nothing is present to give the movie its own unique vibrations. This formulaic-ness works for films like Insidious and The Conjuring because they scare the viewer masterfully and take the character development about as deep as the formulaic genre-type will allow. But many horror movies that follow this formula don’t fare so well—tedious films like The Gallows and Unfriended—both of which were so disappointingly awful I didn’t bother to review them for this site.
To be sure, there are contemporary horror films that deviate from this type. It Follows, which I’ve raved about here and here, is a truly unique, artistic film with highly original characters and a fantastically frightening premise. Guillermo Del Toro tends to churn out good, unique stuff with an original feel, as was certainly the case with Crimson Peak which I write briefly about here. And last year’s The Witch, which took place among a puritan family in the wilderness, was a brilliant and rejuvenating breath of fresh horror air. Which is to say, the genre hasn’t gone to shit, but it’s less creative and diverse than it used to be (a conjecture I make based on viewing older horror films). As we progress further into the millennium, horror films are becoming more and more alike, and more and more predictable for that.
Which brings us to The Bye Bye Man. If we take the typical jump-scare horror movie, and place The Conjuring on one end—the high end—of the spectrum, and a piece of crap like Unfriended on the other end, the low end, of the spectrum, then The Bye Bye Man sits somewhere in between, maybe a little behind the somewhat recent The Forest which was slightly more original but still largely formulaic. The victims in question are pretentious college undergrads, and the demon-ghost, The Bye Bye Man, reveals himself a couple of times throughout the movie, accompanied by a supposed hound of hell that eats the victim’s faces off. Basically, if you think or say The Bye Bye Man’s name, he’ll come for you, and he’s a master at manipulating your mind and your sense of reality once you hear his name. I had a degree of anticipation for this film, because I imagined The Bye Bye Man could be executed somewhat like the film The Babadook, a film about a mysterious creature which I thought was fantastic and original except for a weird ending that undercut the overall scare factor. But The Bye Bye Man didn’t have the original presentation, deep characterization, or emotional tension of The Babadook. By about half way through the movie, I realized the film wasn’t really scary and I could kick back in my seat and sip on my Diet Coke in peace—which sounds nice, but who wants peace while watching a horror movie?
Don’t get me wrong: the film isn’t a complete bust. There are some scary scenes, some jump scares that caused Michael, who was sitting next to me, to yell expletives. The actual Bye-Bye Man looks mildly creepy, but a discussion of his origins and backstory would have been beneficial and added more development to the movie. Certainly the “don’t think it, don’t say it” premise is intriguing. Rarely in horror does one encounter a demon who is ignited by a person’s thoughts. However, not much is done with this element of the story line. What could be a deeply psychological thriller that explores the psychological angst of characters who are trying to avoid thinking of evil that is brought to life by thoughts turns into a typical “run from the bad guy” or “run from the bad thing” charade. The Bye Bye Man’s presence does masterfully manipulate what the affected characters see in a way that could make him seem utterly diabolical, but this trickery comes toward the film’s end, and the filmmakers don’t use The Bye Bye Man’s powers to their advantage as much as they could to make a truly scary character. Finally, he is revealed in full, in a slow, still shot, early in the film. This made him, somehow, less ominous.
If you’re a horror junkie who catches most of the horror movies that come out in theaters, give it a go—the film is not terrible. But don’t have high expectations, and don’t go just for the sake of going. Really, you can probably miss this one and be no worse for it. It takes the graceful exploration of death we’re given in It Follows and makes it a lot clunkier and more haphazard by giving us an evil grim reaper with no ultimate message or motive. To be sure, there is a place for films like The Bye Bye Man in the genre. My hope is that more fresh, original classics like The Witch and It Follows continue to show themselves, because horror can be good art. The presence of an insidious villain and a lot of killings does not preclude a film from having artistic merit. But, I fear, if we have more formulaic films with no original mood or zeal in them, I might, ultimately, say “bye bye” to the horror genre.