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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.

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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.

Evan Jonigkeit as Greg in 20th Century Studios’ THE EMPTY MAN. Photo by Ilze Kitshoff. © 2020 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Spoilers!

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.

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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.

James Badge Dale as James Lasombra and Sasha Frolova as Amanda in 20th Century Studios’ THE EMPTY MAN. Photo by Ilze Kitshoff. © 2020 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Rachel Roth is a writer who lives in South Florida. She has a degree in Writing Studies and a Certificate in Creative Writing, her work has appeared in several literary journals and anthologies. @WinterGreenRoth

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The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster (2023), a Film Review

The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster (2023) is an award-winning sci-fi horror film directed and written by Bomani J. Story.

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The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster (2023) is a sci-fi horror film directed and written by Bomani J. Story. Inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this unrated and award-winning film stars Laya DeLeon Hayes, Denzel Whitaker, Chad L. Coleman, Reilly Brooke Stith, and Amani Summer. As of this review, interested viewers can enjoy this film from Shudder with additional availability through purchase or rent.

After a sequence of tragedies and loss, Vicaria (Laya DeLeon Hayes) seeks to cure death. Despite her genius earning her a private school education, few take this ambition seriously. Those who see it think of her only as an example of a girl separated from reality. But all that changes when she has a breakthrough. Unfortunately for her, the systemic issues that oppress her neighborhood can’t be solved as simply as curing death.

A woman looks at something out of frame, a switch in her hand that she looks ready to press.
Laya DeLeon Hayes as Vicaria

What I Like about The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster and Recognition Earned

This film received nominations from four separate film festivals. It won Best Narrative Feature by the Calgary Underground Film Festival and Best Horror / Sci Fi from Jim Thorpe Independent Film Festival. In addition, it received nominations for Best Narrative Feature from the Atlanta Film Festival and a nomination from the SXSW Film Festival.

The beautifully shot scenes earn respect, and the cast remains strong throughout. While Laya DeLeon Hayes executes the most demanding role, Reilly Brooke Stith (Aisha) and Amani Summer (Jada) elevate their material.

The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster dips its commentary into several hot topics. While I would have liked to see further exploration, it deals with scientific responsibilities, systemic issues facing Black Americans, and more. Needless to say, this film has ambition.

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While particular elements vary in execution, this remains a unique approach to the dehumanization of these racist and systemic issues while telling an engaging story in the process. While I wouldn’t consider this an arthouse film, it dips into that category in many ways.

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Disclaimer Kimberley Web Design

Tired Tropes, Trigger Warnings, and Considerations

For a better viewing experience, don’t take the film with the utmost realism in mind. An example of what I mean is how easily and unnoticed bodies are moved and hidden. As a metaphor or motif, it works better to serve the overall message.

As mentioned, many systemic issues come to light within the story, with varying levels of depth. Some examples include racial profiling, police violence, and microaggressions that stretch the “micro” aspect of the word. I also want to clarify that the film focuses on Vicaria’s personal story, using these experiences when applicable to the plot.

Drug addiction and gang violence play prominent roles in the plot. As mentioned above, The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster addresses many of the systemic issues that make a thriving drug industry as opposed to dehumanizing those participating in it.

The titular Monster evokes levels of realistic body horror. While it’s not particularly extensive, the rot remains present and vivid. Partly related, the film creates a surprisingly gory story.

A man looks out of the screen. The lamp and the couch in the background suggest he is in a house.
Chad L. Coleman as Donald

What I Dislike about The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster

Several plot points remain underdeveloped or underexplored. This choice might indicate sequel material, but I don’t think that’s the case here. For example, viewers hear about a “body snatcher,” but the narrative doesn’t build the mystery until the end. Perhaps this requires a slightly longer run time, but it also could be cut with some edits to the script.

Her Monster didn’t particularly evoke fear. The rot evokes disgust but not terror. The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster remains more focused on the story than the horror.

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Final Thoughts

For those looking for horror rooted in real issues but not afraid to delve into the absurd, The Angry Black Girl and Her Monster remains a strong choice. While it might not evoke the terror and haunting we horror fans hope for, the bittersweet film certainly provides many reasons to give this film a view.
4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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Blood Flower (2022), a Film Review

Blood Flower (2022) is a Malaysian supernatural horror film directed by Dain Said. Originally titled Harum Malam.

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Blood Flower (2022) is a Malaysian supernatural horror film directed by Dain Said. Originally titled Harum Malam, the film stars Idan Aedan, Bront Palarae, and Remy Ishak. As of this review, the film is available on Shudder and AMC+ with additional availability for rent or purchase.

After a family tragedy, Iqbal (Idan Aedan) has trouble finding focus as an apprentice healer. His family remains in shambles, and Iqbal struggles to find a purpose in the wake of this change. As his father (Bront Palarae as Norman) finds temporary work helping a family friend, a terrible horror becomes unleashed. Now, Iqbal must overcome his internal turmoil or lose even more.

A young man stands before two older men. A giant flower in bloom to his left side. Underneath him reads "Harum Malam" written in red.
Blood Flower (Harum Malam) Original Cover

What I Like in Blood Flower

The horror evoked here has some elements of fabulism with a heavy emphasis on the supernatural component. In general, I like the established world and how this supernatural element connects to the characters’ development.

Throughout Blood Flower, the acting remains consistent and engaging. The relationship between Norman and Iqbal, which provides the heart of the film, remains a particularly well-executed point. Even when the writing falls short, the acting wins me over more often than not.

The film builds up its horror, which elevates the execution and overall effect. I won’t claim that the horror truly haunts the viewer, but it remains unsettling and, even uncomfortable, throughout.

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As for the design of the monster, it works. There are points that remain strong, forcing a rather uncomfortable visual or experience that provides an effective execution of Blood Flower’s vision. One especially effective choice is including stop motion in some of the scenes. This visual creates a somewhat jarring feel to the supernatural entity that still lingers in my mind.

White background, rubber stamp with disclaimer pressed against the white background.
Disclaimer Kimberley Web Design

Tired Tropes and Trigger Warnings

Blood Flower includes sexual assaults that remain clunkily included in the plot. When dealing with such material, especially when it remains essential to the story, the execution makes or breaks the quality. Unfortunately, the execution feels rushed and more for the shock of the reveal.

Possession-assisted suicide remains an element within the film. While I think the distance between such harm and the context of the film doesn’t rise above confusion, it deserves a mention in this section.

There are general decisions made for the sake of the plot. While this can fall into the dislike section, it’s within a range so as to not completely distract or undermine the viewing experience.

If any of these are deal breakers, then Blood Flower might be a skip.

A large flower with a giant column in the center
The Real Blood Flower, or amorphophallus titanum

What I Dislike in Blood Flower

Where this movie falls short is building up some of its elements to their conclusion by the end of the film. The previously mentioned sexual assaults make for a strong example, but another remains the human villain. As they are the reason for the monster, I am surprised by the general lack of attention and presence the character receives.

Iqbal unlocking his power feels underwhelming and lacks any real visuals or style. We have magic and special effects, but his power consists of holding out his hand. The issue lies in the execution, not the actor, as Idan Aedan does everything he can with the given command.

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Going into the previous points, a spiritual master helps Iqbal train to become a healer. This person isn’t the one who unlocks their power. I still wonder why so little development on this important point remains in the film.

Final Thoughts

Blood Flower, or Harum Malam, remains an interesting supernatural horror that drops its execution towards the end. It provides a unique viewing experience with equal parts ingenuity and creativity to provide an effective horror. But it remains a flawed work with some wasted potential. Still, it earns its runtime for those interested in Malaysian horror.
2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

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Night’s End (2022), a Film Review

Night’s End (2022) is a supernatural horror film directed by Jennifer Reeder and written by Brett Neveu, starring Geno Walker.

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Night’s End (2022) is a supernatural horror film directed by Jennifer Reeder and written by Brett Neveu. The cast of this film includes Geno Walker, Kate Arrington, Felonious Munk, Lawrence Grimm, and Michael Shannon. As of this review, this film remains accessible to Shudder and AMC+ subscribers.

Recently divorced and looking to start anew, Ken Barber (Geno Walker) passes the time by making YouTube videos. It soon becomes apparent that one of his videos catches something strange. The further he investigates this mystery, the more aggressive this phenomenon becomes. Despite making him an online sensation, it forces him to acquire help from unlikely sources.

A humanoid creature opens the door. An upside down head acts as the background as "Night's End" stands at the center
Night’s End Alternative Cover

What I Like about Night’s End

Night’s End provides the innovation and execution of a film on a tight budget and clear message. It brings out all the best qualities of a B film that understands what it wants to do. The setting remains a perfect example of this ingenuity, containing itself within Ken Barber’s apartment and using Zoom calls to add additional cast members.

Unrelated to the horror, I like the chemistry between Kate Arrington (as ex-wife Kelsey Dees) and Geno Walker. It’s not often we find an ex-wife depicted as a good person character, and when that does happen, it’s usually because he will win her over by the end of the story. This film doesn’t fall into these tropes. A similar point applies to the new husband, Isaac Dees (Michael Shannon).

There’s a psychological component to the horror, which improves the supernatural elements. While it does linger on Ken Barber’s ongoing battle with mental illness, Night’s End doesn’t exactly use this as an excuse to undermine what the viewer sees.

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While there are some execution issues I will discuss, Night’s End provides a tight script and quality performance from its cast. Geno Walker’s Ken Barber requires a believable and complex performance for success, and the actor rises to the challenge.

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Disclaimer Kimberley Web Design

Tired Tropes and Triggers

The biggest disclaimer remains the character’s mental health struggles. While I believe the film refutes many of the dangerous mentally ill tropes, it still allows for some degree of gaslighting. I also think it hints at a few potential issues without exploring any with greater depth. I noted potential alcoholism, OCD, and agoraphobia. But none of these are given too much attention, for better or worse.

Some minor body horror moments might be difficult for squeamish horror fans. However, it hardly makes it a proper introduction to the niche.

If these are deal breakers, perhaps Night’s End won’t satisfy your viewing needs.

A man looks behind him as he sits on a desk. Something looks to be near him
Geno Walker as Ken Barbe

What I Dislike about Night’s End

Night’s End goes so far in strategically applying its budget but provides a few scenes with bad CGI. If it had more style, I’d give it a B movie pass. But it’s just not substantive enough for that pass. While some CGI and special effects remain better than others, the film leans on lower quality.

Toward the end of the film, the characters allow the villain to do some random and weird things with little pushback. Only one person consistently pushes back against the growingly strange requests and receives so little screen time. Some of these people are supposedly experts in supernatural affairs or amateur enthusiasts. Regardless, anyone should have issues with some of these requests toward the conclusion.

While the film remains scary at points, it doesn’t terrify its audience. While the final moments pay off the build-up, we don’t particularly linger on the ramifications.

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Final Thoughts

Night’s End provides a charming but not horrifying supernatural thrill. Ken makes a unique protagonist, struggling to overcome his issues as others seek to exploit him and bring about chaos. It remains an uncommon viewing experience but lacks the weight of a haunting horror.
3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

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