Synopsis – On the trail of a missing girl, an ex-cop comes across a secretive group attempting to summon a terrifying supernatural entity.
My Take – Frankly, at first glance, this new horror film seemed quite decent, mainly because it was not a reboot or a sequel or a spin of well-known IP. Sure, though its title suggested that it might be a distant cousin of Slender Man (2018) and The Bye Bye Man (2017), two films which I think we all can agree are among the worst horror films ever produced, my optimism rose from the fact that it was adaptation of a Boom! Studios (a truly great American comic book publisher) graphic novel of the same name by Cullen Bunn.
Unfortunately the film was doomed even before release, as the feature adaption, which was a leftover from Fox before the Disney merger as is evident by the 20th Century Fox logo at the beginning, was not given much of a (or any) marketing push and dropped into U.S. theaters a week after its trailer dropped online. In other words, they made it pretty clear how terrible the final product is.
Written, directed, and edited by David Prior, whose credits include several behind the scenes/making of documentaries of David Fincher films, clearly had a plan to distinguish his cloaked boogeyman, who lurks in the shadows and preys on the innocent, from its contemporaries, by adapting a slow burn approach to a rather silly idea and edge it towards an intersection of camp and art house with a few genuine thrills.
However, the near-innovation basically stops there, as the story completely drowns out all its potential by trying to do far more than necessary, especially by continuously explaining itself and the story’s connection to its very long and evocative prologue. In trying to be more than a horror film with a mysterious monster, director David Prior just overcompensates in every corner resulting in a film that is needlessly long and filled with philosophical overtones, forcing you to question the identity of the audience the film was supposedly targeted at.
Beginning with a prologue set in 1995 Bhutan, the story takes us to Webster Mills, Missouri in 2018, and follows James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), a former cop, who now runs a self-defense shop. Still reeling with the traumatizing death of his wife and young son a year ago, James mostly keeps to himself that is until his neighbor Nora (Marin Ireland) approaches him regarding the unusual disappearance of her teenage daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova), requesting him to find her.
Using his private detective license to investigate, James’ asking around leads him to Davara (Samantha Logan), a high school friend of Amanda, who believes the Empty Man, a mysterious figure summoned by them, responsible for the disappearance. However his investigation gets weirder when he sets down a path towards the Ponitfix Society, a secretive cult interested in the transmission of ideas led by Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root), a quasi-preacher interested in sharing the message of the Empty Man.
From here the film takes many turns as the investigation unfolds, cloaked in philosophical inquiries that transcend the boundaries of the typical B-film. These are not unfamiliar ideas, obviously. This kind of story calls to mind internet urban legends like Slenderman, as well as characters like Candyman and The Bye Bye Man, basically any boogeyman you can summon. But there is the potential for great stories here.
This one is often a carefully-crafted picture, edited by Prior and Andrew Buckland with a sound design that makes it worth seeing and hearing in a cinema. The music and sound – and in some instance the lack thereof – is also very well used to build suspense and make the audience very uncomfortable. Even during its 137 minute running time it doesn’t cut many corners in the process, this pace allows the horror time and space to breathe before running off the rails.
Make no mistake, this is a scary film. The film is loaded with horrifying imagery, extremely tense moments and some incredible use of uncanny valley. While the film never quite elevates itself to a harmonious balance of camp and art house, it doesn’t lack ambition.
Unfortunately, that is about the extent of this film’s success. As the film feels like a half-baked concept that makes for a truly terrifying horror, but never quite gets around to completing its story, as it just shifts gears from cop procedural, to psychological thriller, to cheap slasher flick in one thirty-minute stretch.
This is a film that wants to be taken seriously, and spouts a lot of half-baked philosophical jargon and concepts that become annoying and unsatisfying even if things sort of come together eventually. There are some interesting ideas here, but it never seems as if the film is sure enough about them or never subtle in its exposition, but it becomes unbearable with the meandering explanations that fill the last half hour.
With the antagonist of the film being based in and around a cult, the only explanation the film offers for all of the craziness that is unfolding is nothing more than cult gibberish. In fact, the titular character becomes more of an idea than an actual presence the longer the film rolls on.
Director David Prior shows ambition with a focus on existential through and experimentation that becomes a foothold for the final hour, but the biggest sin of all has to be the twist ending. You can tell that the film thinks it’s a smart and clever ending, but in reality it makes no sense and it made me hate the film even more. Another thing that jumps out is the incredibly, almost impossibly, long introduction to the film.
Without providing any context, the film opens on some hikers in Bhutan who, over a span of what has to be about 30 minutes, experience a terrible tragedy. While I initially liked this sequence, finding it effectively thrilling, but in retrospect, it’s emblematic of the biggest issue with the film, as it turns out to be only tangentially related to the main plot.
Also while the film has an impressive cast, every role is underwritten. James Badge Dale being the main protagonist gets the maximum screen time, however his role is so one dimensional, it’s hard to root for him. In other roles, Stephen Root, Marin Ireland, Ron Canada, Joel Courtney, Robert Aramayo, Samantha Logan and Sasha Frolova try to work with whatever they have. On the whole, ‘The Empty Man’ is a slow-burn mystery horror filled with complicated but hollow ideas that overrun the presentation.
Directed – David Prior
Rated – R
Run Time – 137 minutes