The Empty Man (2021)
Written & Directed by David Prior
If you were unaware of this film or saw the title in 2021 and kept walking, I wouldn’t think less of you. There has been a bizarre dichotomy in the horror of slow-burn art house fare and throwaway On-Demand garbage in recent years. The mid-tier horror film, much like mid-tier movies in general, feels somewhat lost. The recommendation of the Red Letter Media guys caused me to search out this picture and give it a view. I can honestly say I really enjoyed myself. This isn’t groundbreaking but does actually have a filmmaker thinking carefully about each scene resulting in some astounding cinematography and stylistic flourishes at moments. The story is also very unconventional, told in a manner that will have the audience wondering how the narrative will shift and change next.
The film opens in 1995, following four Americans hiking in the Uru Valley of Bhutan. Paul hears a whistling sound and wanders off, falling down a crevice. His pal Greg climbs down and finds Paul sitting cross-legged and frozen before a massive inhuman skeleton. Greg manages to get Paul back up to the surface, and the quartet heads for shelter as a massive snowstorm heads their way. They eventually find a cabin, but something appears to have followed them. Over the next few days, a presence makes itself known before fully exacting its wrath.
We then jump to Missouri in 2018. The narrative shifts focus to James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), a former police detective who is still grieving the death of his wife and child a year prior. He gets a phone call from family friend Nora (Marin Ireland), who is frantic. Her teenage daughter Amanda has run away and left a message scrawled in blood on the bathroom mirror: “The Empty Man made me do it.” James begins asking around and learns from one of Amanda’s friends about a local legend centered around summoning the mythical Empty Man. As James delves deeper, he discovers the Scientology-like Pontifex Institute with beliefs linked to monastic orders found in Bhutan. As our protagonist keeps investigating, he finds himself falling down a spiral of cosmic horror he can never escape.
Cosmic horror has been seeing a slight uptick in presence in horror lately, and I am here for it. My personal preferences for the genre come out of those esoteric & existential pieces of literature. Thankfully, cosmic horror has done a semi-decent job breaking away from the racist ramblings of Lovecraft, keeping the parts that work, and discarding the racial garbage. The Empty Man follows a similar basic structure with characters succumbing to madness and lots of hints at an entity that no human could hope to fight or stop. You have the cult of true believers that don’t fully understand what they worship, and it’s cleverly tied together with what seems a trite urban legend concept on the surface.
The steps to summon The Empty Man appear silly at first. You sit on the end of a bridge at night, blowing into an empty beer bottle, you think of the Empty Man, and he is summoned. Over the next three nights, you hear him, see him, and then he finds you. When you step back and look at the 20-minute prologue in Bhutan, all of these actions suddenly have more significant meaning; they are parts of an actual ritual filtered through two decades of misunderstanding and adolescent confusion. When taking that opening act into account, it also raises a larger question: are they summoning the Empty Man, or is he luring them in like the Pied Piper?
The first 20 minutes of The Empty Man are pitch-perfect. You can watch this prelude on its own as a complete horror story unto its own, very much in the vein of classic cosmic horror. Through the visuals, we understand the threat (something not of our world & a whiteout blizzard). The characters are forced to struggle against nature, and when they think they are safe, the supernatural elements come out. The aspects that need to be kept vague are. We never fully understand what the skeleton is and why these pieces of ritual are what summons the entity has no background explanation; they just are. The best horror, in my opinion, explains little and taps into how the unknown unsettles the audience.
Besides character actors Stephen Root and Stephen Badge Dale, I was delighted that this is a film of primarily unknown or at least not major Hollywood stars. The studio system has increasingly become centered around fewer performers to star in their productions. It can be a blessing to find a studio movie that is actually good and doesn’t star Scarlett Johanssen or Ryan Reynolds. The Empty Man completed filming in 2017, and 20th Century Fox (this was their last production before Disney bought them out) didn’t really know what to do with the picture. They asked the director to make a 90-minute cut which test audiences hated. The final cut you can watch now is over two hours long, and the story definitely needs that time to set an intense atmosphere and deliver its tale. It was unceremoniously dumped online and in a few theaters in 2021 and met with most everyone panning it, based on thinking it was another Slender Man knock-off.
One element that shocked me was how graphic the film could be at times, particularly juxtaposed against the constant churn of PG-13 horror tripe that often graces multiplexes. There are teenagers smoking and using realistic sexual innuendo. We have full-frontal nudity that isn’t overly sexualized. While these elements aren’t crucial to the overall narrative, they give the film a greater sense of realism to balance the incredibly stylistic choices. To say The Empty Man shifts horror subgenres over its run time would be an understatement. There is so much going on, from crazy cults to cosmic Buddhist horror to an abandoned summer camp to a slasher killing in a spa. I got the sense the director wasn’t sure he was ever going to be able to make a film again, so by god, he was going to make everything he ever wanted in this one. And it actually works!
There are so many wonderful surprises in The Empty Man for those of you up to watch it. Like I said, this probably won’t go on my favorites of 2022 list in December, but it is a movie I would revisit and share with friends. If you aren’t up for a film that’s too heavy & arthouse, but you don’t want to settle for lazily written and poorly shot crap, then you’re going to be delighted by this movie. So many modern movies are forced to operate inside sanitized corporate spaces, always leaving the audience unfulfilled after they promise to take them on a fantastic journey only to lead them through a series of formulaic steps. You end up feeling nothing, and like the remnants of your snacks, all thoughts of the picture get tossed in the trash on the way out of the theater. The Empty Man is certainly not that, and I guarantee you will find something to love about this miracle of a movie. Here’s hoping for more like this soon.