By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland and Sasha Prolova
Written and directed by David Prior
20th Century Fox
THE EMPTY MAN is not at all the movie that its trailers are selling–and in this case, that’s a good thing. Bearing a 2018 copyright and a two-hour-17-minute running time, this is a clear case of a film the studio didn’t know what to do with, and ultimately threw to the wolves in the midst of the pandemic, with a marketing campaign that only began a week before its release.
You’d think from that misleading preview that THE EMPTY MAN is another cheesy small-town bogeyman flick on the order of THE BYE BYE MAN, but it proves to be one of the more weirdly ambitious and occasionally avant-garde horror films to be released by a studio in some time. It doesn’t all work, but enough of it does–and it is crafted well enough–that it’s a shame fright fans will have to head out in these uncertain times if they want to have the full theatrical experience of it. (For the record, I caught the first show today, with mask on, in an auditorium with only six other distanced people, so I felt pretty safe.) Bottom line: Many worse horror films got wide breaks with advance screenings in years past.
In any case, THE EMPTY MAN is so not the film you’d expect from the way it’s being sold that I’m loath to describe it in too much detail. What can be said is that you know from the start that this is not your typical suburban teen shrieker when it opens with a 23-minute prologue set in the mountains of Bhutan in 1995, where a quartet of hikers run afoul of a strange and threatening force. We then cut to Webster Mills, MO in 2018, where we meet former cop turned security-store owner James Lasombra (James Badge Dale)–and if that name wasn’t enough of a wink, consider that the local teenagers attend Jacques Derrida High School. One of those youths is Amanda Quail (Sasha Prolova), daughter of James’ good friend Nora (Marin Ireland), who turns up at James’ place seeming vaguely troubled and spouting odd philosophical platitudes. The next morning, she vanishes, leaving a reference to “The Empty Man” scrawled in blood in her room.
James’ attempt to track Amanda down on Nora’s behalf leads him to learn of the local legend of the Empty Man, who has his own only-in-the-movies mythology: Blow into an empty bottle discovered on a bridge and call him to mind, and he’ll stalk you over the course of three days. Amanda and a group of her friends did just that a night or so back, which has now apparently put them on the Empty Man’s hit list. This story element, however, is only a very small portion of the film, and in fact the scene that resolves it in an unexpected manner packs one of several genuine shivers scattered throughout THE EMPTY MAN.
From the start, THE EMPTY MAN eschews the CW-on-the-big-screen look of many films of this type, and adopts a subdued, mournful tone; writer/director David Prior (no relation to cult schlockster David A. Prior) does just as much with silence as he does with sound and music. Things do start to get a little more bonkers as he gets into the meat of his movie, and James goes down what proves to be a very deep and strange rabbit hole (to which Dale reacts with well-conveyed determination, fear and just the right amount of humorous disbelief). The story becomes bigger and odder than James or the audience expects–particularly if those viewers are fans of Cullen Bunn’s graphic novels, the credited source with which considerable liberties have been taken. (In Bunn’s illustrated version, “The Empty Man” is a virus that induces mania and catatonia and leads to quarantining, etc.; all references to the plague have been removed here, which makes this the first horror film of 2020 that’s accidentally not relevant to this year’s events.)
Some of the developments over THE EMPTY MAN’s long but never dull running time are chilling and startling, others remain head-scratchers and a few are downright goofy, and Prior deserves credit for pure crazy ambition, even if it’s fulfilled more in parts than in the whole. He has also marshalled a strong group of collaborators: The film seeps with mood thanks to cinematographer Anastos Michos (who’s worked with Milos Forman and Joseph Ruben), while the odd couple of classical horror composer Christopher Young and industrial “dark ambient” musician Lustmord contribute a cohesive and chilling score. Although the movie is really Dale’s show in terms of acting, Ireland (so good in Bryan Bertino’s soon-to-release THE DARK AND THE WICKED), Prolova, Stephen Root and Joel Courtney all contribute strong moments amidst the evolving weirdness. Prior has previously made documentaries and featurettes on films by Davids Fincher and Cronenberg, among others, and it’s clear he’s learned a few good lessons from them. Considering the way THE EMPTY MAN has been dumped, it seems uncertain whether he’ll get to tackle another feature anytime soon. But I’m glad he got to make this one.