By Preston Wilder
Bye bye 2016, with its dubious referendums and celebrity deaths. Hello 2017, with its hoped-for healing and possible solution to the Cyprus problem – though also hello January, with its weird mix of Oscar nominees and bottom-of-the-barrel sludge like The Bye Bye Man, a psychological horror whose presence at the multiplex is something of a mystery, given its low-budget lineaments. It’s not even Blumhouse, the studio specialising in low-budget horrors.
In a way this is an admirable film, because it has ideas – and indeed it’s about ideas, the notion of a bad idea that spreads like cancer (a topical subject in today’s extremist climate, as indeed is our heroes’ flawed solution which is to bury the idea and hope it goes away). In every other way, this is a terrible film – stilted, badly acted, close to amateurish. I’d like to support it, but it wouldn’t be right. It’s like when you catch some creaky B-movie on late-night TV and think to yourself: ‘For a bad movie, that was surprisingly interesting’ – which is also true of The Bye Bye Man, but stumbling on a pungent bit of rubbish at two in the morning is one thing; paying eight euros to watch it at the cinema, with a reasonable expectation of a certain standard, is quite another.
What we have here is a Candyman clone with a few haunted-house bits. “It’s a little creepy, right?” say the three hapless teens – two boys and a girl – moving in to their new place off-campus, a chilly old house with the furniture mysteriously packed away in the basement. Soon enough, it begins: a door slams by itself, scaring Sasha. “That’s not funny, Elliot!” she yells at her boyfriend – but then Elliot appears from the other direction, asking “What’s wrong?” when he spots her puzzled expression. The furniture includes a night-stand, its drawer obsessively scrawled – a madman’s scrawl – with the words “Don’t think it, don’t say it”. ‘It’ is the Bye Bye Man, a cadaverous figure who arrives when invoked, accompanied by his faithful hound, and messes with people’s minds, turning them into killers.
The plot is standard, the execution slipshod. Cressida Bonas as Sasha is especially ill-served: one minute she’s convinced the BBM is after her, the next she’s reassuring Elliot and saying “There’s nothing here”, not to mention that she keeps coming down with a cold (I imagine a casting call reading ‘Must be able to cough convincingly’). Our heroes’ hallucinations get increasingly daft, from maggots and blood to one kid imagining that steely cop Carrie-Anne Moss just winked at him. (Moss is too famous for this material though still outdone by a septuagenarian Faye Dunaway, hobbling around in an old house like a real-life Baby Jane.) By the time half-mad Elliot sings ‘Bye Bye Love’ – “I feel I’m gonna die!!!” – along with the car radio and the living-room wallpaper comes alive for no reason at all, it’s clear we’re in a very silly movie. January, innit.
Cue The Great Wall, operating at the other end of the budget spectrum (it cost an estimated $150 million) but equally dire – in fact, it may be even worse, since it even lacks ideas. Something seems to have gone awry here: the film is billed as “a mystery centred around the construction of the Great Wall of China” – and begins with a sober caption to the effect that the Wall is “one of mankind’s most enduring wonders” – but in fact the Wall has nothing to do with it, except as a general setting. This is a monster movie, pure and simple, Starship Troopers without the wit and irony, pitting Western mercenary Matt Damon and a Chinese imperial army against a horde of green scaly CGI beasties. “I didn’t sign up for this,” blusters the inevitable sidekick. “What part?” replies Damon, possibly thinking of his own participation. “Well, all of it. But mostly the monsters.”
The main problem here is overkill: the monsters are too big and too many. It takes ages, and half a dozen men, to kill one of them – and meanwhile there are literally thousands more, stretching as far as the eye can see. The film is bombastic, incoherently plotted (two scenes near the end, when the general tells Matt he’s free to go, seem to be in the wrong order) and bears the scars of what may once have been an intelligent period fantasy, pumped up and dumbed down for the newly-ascendant Chinese movie audience (which of course never even saw Starship Troopers). We’re told that the monsters symbolise greed – like our hero’s mercenary greed – coming “to remind us what happens when greed is unchecked”, but the subtext leads nowhere and seems irrelevant anyway.
Faced with this mess (which has proven to be a successful mess, at least in China), director Zhang Yimou falls back on garish colours – refracted through stained-glass windows at the busy climax – and vapid spectacle. A late twist reveals that the monsters have been fooling the world all this time, industriously digging tunnels while pretending to be fierce monstrous things, elevating the film from simply tedious to actively hilarious. I suppose there’s a market for this stuff, Great Wall or not; or, as Sasha says to Elliot in a quiet moment in The Bye Bye Man: “Wanna watch something stupid?”.
THE GREAT WALL
DIRECTED BY Zhang Yimou
STARRING Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe
China/US 2016 103 mins
THE BYE BYE MAN
DIRECTED BY Stacy Title
STARRING Douglas Smith, Cressida Bonas, Lucien Laviscount
US 2017 96 mins