The Empty Man (2020)
The first night you hear him. The second night you see him. The third night he finds you.
* Note: in order to discuss The Empty Man in some detail, this review will contain mild spoilers.
Chances are you probably missed The Empty Man when it hit theatres late last year — and I don’t blame you. Judging by its title, The Empty Man sounded like it would be just another one of those familiar creepy man stories à la Slender Man (2018) or The Bye Bye Man (2017). It was also poorly and misleadingly advertised; its generic teeny-type trailer was cut literally a week or so before its release. Additionally, as one of the titles Disney acquired from the Disney/ 20th Century Fox merger in 2019, it’s clear that The Mouse House didn’t really know what to do with a film like The Empty Man, dropping it in theatres in the middle of a global pandemic. Basically, it had Buckley’s chance of gaining an audience or making any sort of money. Here’s the thing, though. The Empty Man is actually very good — no, it’s better than very good, it’s excellent.
It’s also scary as f*ck!
Based on Boom! Studios’ 2014 graphic novel of the same name, written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Vanesa R. Del Rey, the film is written and directed by newcomer David Prior, who made his start by directing a whole bunch of DVD ‘Making Of’ documentaries for David Fincher. Sure, The Empty Man is a bit of a hard sell — it’s a 137-minute cosmic horror that asks its audience to think about what they’re watching. It’s strange, ambiguous, and doesn’t give us all the answers. So, I can see why studio executives panicked and tried to trim the film down after dreadful test screenings, only to give up entirely and just let Prior finish the project the way it was intended. But, instead of screening the movie at a couple of festivals in the hope of generating buzz before its release, it was simply dumped last year in place of Fox’s Death on the Nile (2021). Fortunately, good news travels fast, so it was only a matter of time until word got out that this is, in fact, a unique film that’s worthy of our time.
The Empty Man opens with a terrific 22-minute prologue set in 1995, where four hikers, Greg (Evan Jonigkeit), Paul (Aaron Poole), Fiona (Jessica Matten), and Ruthie (Virginia Kull), are trekking through Ura Valley, Bhutan. After they cross a rickety bridge, Paul notices a strange noise coming from nearby that only he can hear. He follows it until he falls into a crevice. His friend Greg hurriedly goes in to see if he’s okay but finds Paul in a catatonic state, staring at an abnormal-looking skeleton (which was inspired by a Zdzisław Beksiński painting). His friends eventually take the unresponsive Paul to an empty house while taking refuge from a fierce snowstorm. But, as the storm continues to rage over the next two days, strange and eerie things begin to happen to the group.
From there, we cut to Missouri in 2018, where we meet our protagonist James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), a former detective who’s sleepwalking through life after the death of his wife (Tanya van Graan) and son (Matthew Arluck) in an accident that happened about a year ago. When his only friend Nora (Marin Ireland) comes to him for help after her eighteen-year-old daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) suddenly disappears — the police assume she’s just run away — James begins an investigation of his own. The only lead he has is a message written in blood that reads, ‘The Empty Man made me do it.’
James starts off by tracking down and talking to Amanda’s friends. He gets a hold of a friend named Davara (Samantha Logan), who tells him that the group tried to summon an entity known as The Empty Man several days ago. An urban legend of sorts, it’s said that if you find an empty bottle on a bridge, then blow over it and think of the Empty Man, he will come for you. Similar to the lore of traditional boogeymen such as Bloody Mary, or Candyman, legend states that on the first night you’ll hear him, on the second night you’ll see him, and on the third night, he’ll find you. After doing some more digging, James discovers that Amanda was also a member of a society known as the Pontifex Institute. Now, as James attempts to find Amanda, he must attain certain answers to lead him in the right direction. Answers to questions such as: What is the Pontifex Institute? Is it some sort of cult? And, most importantly, what does it have to do with The Empty Man?
Subverting expectations at every turn, filmmaker David Prior is more interested in the lore of The Empty Man rather than the creature himself. With that said, the film is an unusual trip into the mythology and ethos of how this entity may have come to be, and the link that these types of stories and monsters have with those that are broken and empty inside — basically, the horror of nihility. Additionally, Prior incorporates the Tibetan concept of Tulpa into the story, a notion whereby a being or an object can be created through spiritual or mental powers.
Technically, the film looks outstanding, the cinematography by Anastas N. Michos, The First Purge (2018), genuinely first-rate. Prior, who edited the film with Andrew Buckland, Ford v Ferrari (2019), also knows how to create dread and an unsettling atmosphere, crafting a world that looks seemingly normal, yet feels kinda off — a character, for instance, might walk past a picture frame, but on closer examination, it’s clear that the image inside is of an eerily familiar location. Prior uses terrific imagery, mainly repetition throughout, which relates to the film’s themes and ideas — we see shots of interlocking fingers, flute-type instruments, and bridges. Furthermore, the movie’s visual effects are quite good, chiefly the frightening shots of the titular ghoul. The film’s signature sequence, however, is a coup de maître in horror filmmaking, a nightmarish visit to an old Pontifex campsite where James goes to do some snooping. The less you know about this sequence, the better, but let’s just say that this could very well be one of the scariest movie moments of this, or any other, year. I still get goosebumps thinking about it.
When it comes to the cast, The Empty Man is essentially a one-man show. Star James Badge Dale, The Departed (2006), literally carries the entire movie as James Lasombra — bar the prologue, James Badge Dale is basically in every scene and does a tremendous job in both remaining credible and keeping audience attention. Another performance worthy of note is that of Stephen Root, Office Space (1999), who shows up in a short but memorable scene as a cult leader and speaker named Arthur Parsons.
Well crafted, confidently shot, narratively ambitious, and petrifying as hell, The Empty Man is one of the best films of 2020. Ultimately, I just hope it finds an audience. I’d put it in the same basket as Gore Verbinski’s under-looked gothic horror, A Cure for Wellness (2016). It’s a truly superb debut feature from David Prior, who deserves to become as big as his ‘mentor’ Fincher. So, if you’re a horror aficionado or are into dark, unusual films, I urge you to track this one down. Who knows, given its tumultuous journey to our screens, it may be on track to becoming a new cult classic.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)