2020 | rated R | starring James Badge Dale | directed by David Prior | 2 hrs 15 mins |
Completed in 2018, dumped on empty theaters in 2020, a debut film for a new, untested filmmaker in David Prior and an adaptation of a post-apocalyptic comic book series, I can see why a studio didn’t quite know what to do with The Empty Man. It’s a heady film, full of post-modernism, quantum theory and cult babbling, a slow burn with an epic-for-horror over 2 hour running time and a villain that is hard to realize by design. And yet, The Empty Man also has a lot of the gimmicks and horror tropes that studios have been using to fill 90 minute throw away haunted house movies for decades – it just does it better than they do.
Prior’s film opens with a pre-title prologue set in a mountain top cabin that it is so committed to it feels like you’ve wandered into the wrong movie. It is also excellent and sets the tone for the moody, increasingly oppressive atmosphere that will propel it the rest of the way. We eventually meet our reluctant hero James (James Badge Dale, 24), a retired cop in a self defense store who gets pulled into the mythos of a local folk legend when a teenage girl (Amanda Quail) he’s befriended turns up missing. She and a group of friends may have conjured up the spirit of The Empty Man when they followed the rules: if you stand on a bridge and blow into a bottle while thinking of The Empty Man he will come for you in 3 days. But James’ investigation takes a turn for the ethereal when and he winds through a labyrinth of cultists who receive the messages of the Empty Man.
Like The Bye-Bye Man, Truth or Dare, The Ring or any number of studio films, The Empty Man even gives the marketing department the same set of easily digestible rules they usually love for movies like this. But unlike those movies, Prior is able to convey here the abstract sense of impending doom that comes with dealing with an unseen, all-powerful evil entity. In The Bye-Bye Man or Truth or Dare, for example, it’s unexplainable why a God-like evil entity would spend several days just goofing around with his victims while the movie fumbles around with trying to convey it’s all-knowing power. This film takes the more difficult, less crowd-pleasing direction, refusing to give The Empty Man a tangible form that our villains can fight. The rules, the bottle, the three days, are all just entry points to Prior’s real goal of mounting a purely cinematic experience of impending, hopeless doom.
In a case of context elevating a trope, this movie is full of what Hollywood films best: scenes of someone walking down hallways investigating noises in the dark. And yet, both because of Prior’s direction and Dale’s performance, it works. It fits the paranoid context. Dale’s gives some character to James, it’s fun watching him increasingly frustrated with the cultist quantum babble, dismissing that they have anything new to say with “I grew up in San Francisco”.
Light on plot and long in the tooth, Empty Man is a hard-t0-describe but rewarding film that uses tropes from the horror genre to spin in it’s own vision. What The Empty Man actually is and how he goes about his business is the mystery here and it’s a compelling one sustained over the film’s length. That 2 hour and 15 minute running time afforded the film is probably it’s biggest asset. Prior is given room to draw out slow creepy moments and let the tension (and frankly confusion) rack up. It’s no coincidence that Orphan, one of the best studio horror films of last decade, also ran 2 hours. Like Roger Ebert said, a bad movie is always too long and a good movie is always too short. I happily would spend all afternoon with this one. Prior commands the time, space and tone here just right.
When it comes to bringing all these ideas down for a landing, Empty Man delivers a satisfying payoff that doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense in an in-movie world where nothing makes a lot of sense. I don’t think the final twist holds water at all. It’s wild, ambitious and casts a wide net over everything we’ve seen previously, however the movie also keeps possibilities for other interpretations open. Battling but measured, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and all of it’s methodical indulgences.