‘The Bye Bye Man’
Director:
Stacy Title
Stars: Douglas Smith, Cressida Bonas
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

“The Bye Bye Man” is like a less ambitious “Candyman,” stripped of its pretensions towards social commentary, its iconic bee imagery and definitely its Philip Glass score. That’s no knock. The arty-ish horror classic had the kind of hooky premise ripe for straight-up junk cinema (hence its two cash-in sequels): a boogeyman can only materialize when you say his name — like Beetlejuice, only less charming. Hence, “The Bye Bye Man,” a largely competent, largely brainless grinder that’s significantly better than its name — the kind of moniker that could only be dreamt up by sleep-deprived screenwriters struggling through a late-night spitballing sesh.

We rarelu see our lead ghoul (embodied by professional weirdo Doug Jones), and when we do he looks like a scary Lurch from “The Addams Family” and struts around with a crimson CGI hound that appears to have been created on a motion graphics program from 1994. He’s more a menace when unseen, anyway. When summoned, as by a trio of foolish collegiates played by three randos, he simply gets inside his victims’ heads, creating false visions, preying on their insecurities or, in one character’s case, just giving her a really, really bad cold. Soon our heroes find themselves trying to divine if there’s another way to get him out of their brain that doesn’t involve bullets.

RELATED: Interview: That time Michelle Monaghan broke one of Jamie Foxx's teeth on "Sleepless"

There’s a disturbing idea at play here: that there is no magical cure, no leftfield, impenetrable quest our heroes must embark to rid themselves of this wraith. The BBM only dies when all all traces of his name are gone, when he’s effectively lost to history. It’s a cold concept director Stacy Title and writer Jonathan Penner don’t quite exploit enough. There’s not much on their film’s mind beyond the slow, slightly clumsy stroll to the finish line, and it doesn’t invite deep readings into themes or ideas. (That said, what to make of a film in which the ones who unleash the demon include an outspoken skeptic and a dedicated journalist? This will one day be reclaimed as a conservative classic.)

Title and Penner are an unlikely pair for modern multiplex horror: Two decades ago they helmed and acted in/executive produced, respectively, the very ’90s all-star murderous lefties indie comedy “The Last Supper” (which is probably fun to watch right now).  Neither comes at a very different genre in a unique way; they simply conform to its rites. Penner has written characters so bland that the only way to tell the difference between our leads is one’s white, one’s black and one’s a girl. He goes light on the dense mythology that today makes even a movie about Ouija boards unnecessarily complicated. It's a movie so lean that just when you think it won't even include the token old codget who explains the backstory, in vamps Faye Dunaway at the 11th hour. Penner goes too small, in fact, gifting Title as director with only a Trump-sized handful of chances to work viewers' nerves.

That’s a shame, because when called upon to fright, Title knows how. It’s mostly your stock “is that a monster in the shadows or behind our hero?” horror business, but doing that well requires skill. She even orchestrates a legitimately jumpy mid-film “boo!” scare, which works largely because she delayed our first good look at our beastie for so long. Most of the time, though, she’s stuck simply creating a sickening mood of dread as dopey characters slowly figure out what’s going on. The film never quite lives up to its literally and figuratively killer opening, but it also doesn’t punk out when it’s time to wrap things up.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge