One of the strangest and most surprising hits to come out of 2020 was David Prior’s The Empty Man. Calling it a hit is actually a stretch because it was a financial bomb and even now, hardly anyone has seen it, but, like a good jump scare no one saw coming, it’s crawled out from the abyss of unknown obscurity and less than a year after its release has already reached cult status.
How or why a movie might develop a cult following is in many ways inexplainable. Uusally its a term given to oddball films that didn’t get much attention upon inital release. Sometimes it takes years to develop like for Bee Movie or sometimes it occurs instantaneously, partially spurred on by controversial reception such as with Spring Break. More often than not though, it’s just a lucky combination of the times, circumstances, and how certain people discuss the film in question. The Empty Man is not an old film nor a controversial one, and while it’s unique it’s not that unique, and yet it’s already gained a reputation similar to that of a film that’s been locked underground for decades viewed only by die-hard cinephiles at underground festivals from bootlegged reels. A film people keep talking about despite very little having seen it.
The fact that no one’s seen The Empty Man is not at all surprising. The marketing campaign for this film was non-existent. There was no press on it, no commercials or TV spots, hardly any theaters screened it, and the few critics that bothered to review it were brutal. A very misleading trailer was released just a week before it hit theaters on October 23, 2020, just in time for Halloween but in the middle of a pandemic. Then, just as soon as it arrived, it vanished. A puff of smoke that didn’t even spark a fire until out of nowhere, it suddenly reappeared. Brought back to life thanks to a home video release.
If you’re interested in the drama surrounding this film, its production, and its troubled release, director David Prior discusses it all in detail in a very good interview for Thrillist. He’s beautifully bitter, I love it.
Hype is a double-edged sword. It can spread news about a film faster than anything as well as premature love, but it can also ruin a film by creating expectations that can’t ever be measured up.
The ominously titled The Empty Man, usually paired with the image of a many-armed Kali-like skeleton in a cave was the king of “best movies of 2020” lists that started coming out early this year. The movie itself began to feel haunted. The image of that beautifully crafted skeleton was an itch in my brain that I needed to scratch, and now that I have, I almost wished that I hadn’t. I wished that the film had stayed as it was- mysterious, unknown, and unseen.
This is not to say that it’s a bad film. The Empty Man is far from a bad film, rough around the edges with plenty of room for improvement, but not bad at all. It’s an ambitious slow-burn horror film that presents cosmic theories with Lovecraftian undertones. However, the slow creeping wonder that surrounds this film doesn’t match the final product. Not an unsettling masterpiece designed to leave viewers feeling like they’d been gutted and stripped raw. This is not the case. The Empty Man does leave you with something, something very unique to the story it is telling but nothing sinister or dreadful. Just something very empty. You’ll walk away from this film feeling empty. The saying “if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you,” will have a whole other meaning because instead of imagining something inside that empty abyss, you’ll see it just as it is- an empty part of the Earth.
Based on the graphic novel by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey, The Empty Man was both adapted for the screen and directed by David Prior. Marketed as an urban legend-inspired slasher like Bye Bye Man, this film had a very hard time finding its audience especially since this film is geared towards a very particular type of audience. Not very good for plain entertainment, nor something to just put on and watch in a numb haze. It’s a complex thought process that’s filled with plenty of twists and turns, most are somewhat obvious but only if you’re paying proper attention.
Starring James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, and Sasha Frolova, The Empty Man follows an ex-cop who stumbles upon a secret cult while searching for a friend’s missing daughter. I know it sounds super straightforward but, trust me, there’s a whole lot more going on. Coming in at 137 minutes, this film is certainly a lot to take in. Although not complicated or hard to follow, it’s just a lot. Essentially three movies in one, the film starts with a 20 or so minute prologue set in 1995 featuring a group of hikers that all meet a violent end. It’s a prologue that’s meant to come back to us later. Its purpose is to connect with the final and third act of the film and hovers around the primary story like the bones under a graveyard.
Fast forward years later to modern day Missouri, we’re introduced to ex-cop James Lasombra and the teenager Amanda, an emo version of Alice in Wonderland who is a firm believer in the local urban legend about “the emtpy man.” According to the legend, if you blow into an empty bottle on a bridge and think of him, the empty man will haunt you for three days until he finally appears before you on that final day. Amanda and her friends go missing after playing the game so now it’s up to Jacob to try and figure out not only who the empty man is but where he took Amanda.
Working alongside the rules of the legend, the entire film takes place over the course of three days and within those three days, Jacob falls deep down the rabbit hole. He discovers secrets upon secrets all of which connects to a facility called Pontifex Institute and the what may or may not be a Tulpa. By the way, if you know what a Tulpa is, there is a strong chance that you’ll be able to guess the ending to this movie.
If I had any real complaints about this movie it would be about the pacing and the “creature” design of the empty man during the few glimpses that we actually see him. As mentioned earlier, this movie is 137 minutes long, and it’s one of those movies where the three acts are very noticeable in their separation, and it’s the middle act that drags. The film’s 20-minute prologue and third act, which takes place within the last 70 or so minutes, are continuations of each other with the middle used to explain the gap between them. The Empty Man spends half its runtime setting things up, and it not only feels like a setup, but at times its a terrible slog.
One half is noticeably better than the other, but it’s thanks to the long setup that it works. It’s got a good payoff. This is not a masterful work of terror or tension, some sequences come off as awkward and rough as if they’d been rushed through, but there are certain moments, especially in that last half, where tension gets high and the fear of what’s going on around Jacob gets very unsettling. He’s on the bridge on his way to “endless black chaos.”(3.5 / 5)