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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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Movies n TV

Fallout, The End

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Launching with worldwide excitement, Fallout is based on the extremely popular game series of the same name. Fans of the series have waited with anticipation and trepidation to see if the Prime series would live up to the game.

Having now watched the first episode I can say that, so far, it’s successful.

The story

Our story begins with a children’s birthday party. A performer is there with his daughter, giving horse rides and taking pictures with the kids.

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As much as the adults try to focus on the party and the kids, it’s impossible to ignore the looming threat of war that’s on everyone’s mind.

Of course, it’s during this party that war comes, and the bombs drop.

We then cut to after the war and into one of the vaults established to protect humankind and the American Way. For future reference, this is Vault 33. We meet Lucy, our first main character, who’s petitioning to be married to a man from Vault 32 to ensure DNA diversity.

On the wedding night, though, Lucy and the rest of Vault 33 are met with a horrible surprise. The group they let in is not in fact from Vault 32, but is instead a team of raiders from the surface. The raiders kill a lot of the vault dwellers and kidnap Lucy’s father.

We are then introduced to our second main character, Maximus. He is in training to become a Knight in the Brotherhood of Steel. And, well, he’s not doing great.

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Things get worse when his best friend Dane becomes a squire before him. But when Dane is hurt, Maximus gets their spot.

Aaron Moten in Fallout.

We then go back to Lucy, who has decided to leave the vault and find her dad. Of course, the council of her vault doesn’t want her to go. So she is aided by her brother Norm and cousin Chet in a wild escape.

What worked

The first thing that deserves attention is the exceptional character work. Our three main characters are fleshed out and relatable right away. We feel sympathetic for The Ghoul before he’s even introduced as such. We love Lucy’s nativity and selflessness. And we love Maximus for his honesty and passion for his cause.

While these characters are their own people, they also exhibit the three responses we might expect to see in a post-apocalyptic world. We have the hopeful optimist who doesn’t understand how bad things are. We have the aspiring hero who wants to make the world better by force. And we have the self-serving individual who’s given up on the rest of humanity and is only focused on surviving.

Another thing I enjoyed about this episode was the balance of humor and gore. Because there was certainly enough blood and guts for even the most hardcore horror lover. We had a violent sabotage, a brawl with raiders, and even several nuclear bombs.

But there were a lot of funny moments as well. Usually from Lucy. Her overall goodwill and fearless gumption are absolutely hilarious, especially given the horrors she’s facing. It never ceases to amuse me.

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Ella Purnell in Fallout

Both of these aspects are done perfectly. The jokes land and the bloody scenes pull no punches. It was delightful.

All in all, this was an exciting start to a much-anticipated series. Here’s hoping they’re able to stick the landing.

For more tv shows based on video games, check out my review of Witcher. 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

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Movies n TV

American Horror Story Delicate, Ave Hestia

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Episode seven of American Horror Story Delicate was a classic AHS flashback episode. If you were excited to see what Preecher had to say to Anna at the end of the last episode, I’m sorry to say that you will not get that satisfaction. However, we did learn all sorts of other fascinating things about the strange coven hunting Anna. And, we learned all sorts of things we didn’t know about Dex’s first wife, Adeline.

The story

We begin our story with a woman giving birth alone in a barn. When it becomes clear that she’s not going to be able to deliver vaginally, she pulls out a knife and cuts her stomach open to pull out her children.

For whatever reason, this is when the coven of witches decides to make themselves known.

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Ashlie Atkinson in American Horror Story.

We then cut to 2013, when Dex was still married to Adeline. In true Dex fashion, he’s surprised her with a puppy.

While that sounds great in theory, dogs are something a couple should talk about, not gift each other with as a surprise. An adult would know that. A trust fund boy like Dex does not.

Adeline owns a vegan restaurant called Ave Hestia. Love that name. She seems to be living a great life. She has a career she’s passionate about, friends who love her, and a husband she seems kind of fond of.

Maybe that’s why she didn’t want a puppy. She already had one.

Of course, things aren’t as good as they appear. We soon find out that Adeline was one of those babies we saw at the start of the episode. The other baby was Sonia, the painter.

Annabelle Dexter-Jones in American Horror Story.

And yes, both of these characters are played by Annabelle Dexter-Jones.

Adeline has stepped away from their family, and whatever dark things they do. But the family isn’t happy with her decision. And if she isn’t going to come back willingly, they’re going to make her.

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What worked

To start with, I loved the character, Adeline. She is fierce, she is fearless, and relentless. I feel like this would have been a far different story if Adeline had been our main character. It was astounding to see her interact with the same people Anna has, and get a completely different response. It’s clear now, how much everyone around Anna resents her for simply not being Adeline.

I also appreciated that there was just a shocking amount of blood in this episode. From the start when Adeline and Sonia are born, to the climactic end of Adeline, this episode is just drenched in blood.

Finally, I’m fascinated by the changes in this season from the book it’s based on. Because absolutely none of this was in the book. Compared to this, the book is heartwarming.

The book is kind of heartwarming even without the comparison.

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But I love the fact that, even with just two episodes left in the season, I have no idea what’s going to happen. I do not know what Anna is carrying. I do not know if she’s going to survive this. I do not know what these people want with her.

But I can’t wait to find out.

What didn’t work

All that being said, it is a bit frustrating to have no forward momentum in this episode. This was all backstory, and it felt like there wasn’t enough backstory to fill a full forty minutes. Because of that, it dragged. There were a lot of scenes that just didn’t need to be as long as they were. It felt like they could have cut that down considerably, and had some time to check in with our main characters at either the start or the end of the episode.

There are only two episodes left in the season, and I can honestly say I have no idea what’s going to happen. But so far the story has been dark, bloody, and provocative. So I hope they can manage to end it on a high note.

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4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

If you’re a fan of my work, please check out my latest story, Nova, on Paper Beats World. New chapters launch every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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Movies n TV

The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs: An Eggs-celent Time

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The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs returned March 29th for the first ever Easter-themed episode. Debuting the new series format, hosts Joe Bob and Darcy the Mail Girl presented only one film. The Drive-In can be watched on AMC+ and Shudder every other Friday during the season.

This week on The Last Drive-In, Joe Bob Briggs and Darcy the Mail Girl hopped onto our screens to include us in their Easter party. Festivities include decorating eggs, blowing noisemakers, cuddling mutilated stuffies, and of course, swigging down Lone Star beer. You’re invited to consume whatever substances you like best to enhance the viewing experience of this week’s film, Brian Skiba’s Rottentail (2019).  

Season 6 poster for The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs.

As Joe Bob opens the episode, there is hope he will remain focused and on topic. He begins with innocent rabbit behavior patterns before taking a turn into the best methods of hunting them. Darcy grows increasingly uncomfortable as he delights in giving pointers to would-be hunters. She incredulously asks, “Are you talking about killing rabbits right now?” 

Believing the audience is on her side, she throws up a Twitter poll. It was a close split, but 50.2% of viewers who responded do agree with her. See? Every vote does count. (Seriously, make sure you are registered to vote in this year’s elections.) 

Ch-Ch-Changes

Calling out the elephant in the room, Joe Bob reminds viewers about the new one-movie format of the series. Instead of two movies every Friday, this season has been stretched out with one movie showing every other week until Labor Day. 

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If you want someone to blame, Joe Bob says you can point at us tired folks on the east coast struggling to stay awake past midnight. However, between the new format and specials, we have been assured there are actually more movies this season. 

Thankfully for the audience, Rottentail is packed with action and hits multiple genres to the point that it feels like at least a movie and a half. 

A poster for Rottentail (2019) featuring the mutated Peter Cotten and the tagline "Hippity Hoppity Homicide."
A poster for Rottentail (2019).

Rottentail tells the story of unassuming scientist Peter Cotten (Corin Nemec) being transformed into a rabbit-human hybrid after receiving a bite from a genetically-engineered rabbit. He embarks on a journey of revenge against those who wronged him in his childhood such as Pastor Jake Mulligan (William McNamara). He even finds time to rekindle a past romance with Anna Banana (Dominique Swain).

The Drive-In Totals include but are not limited to: 4 dead bunnies, 1 mad army general, mutated bunny rampage, lettuce nibbling, heart tossing, 1 mutant bunny baby, and erection fu. “Four stars. Joe Bob says, ‘Check it out.’

No Animals Were Harmed

It goes without saying that there are a few depictions of animal cruelty within this film. Darcy feels it is prudent to warn the audience. Whenever an animal dies on screen, Twitter is flooded with upset viewers expressing their distaste. Dragging the warning out of Joe Bob, she reminds him of the gentle nature of the #MutantFam. We’ll watch humans be slaughtered all day, but don’t you dare hurt that animal.  

Joe Bob seems to not understand the need for the warning as, “this whole movie is about taking revenge on people who harm animals!” He insists no animals are actually harmed and implies that being bothered is indicative of good effects. To demonstrate, at one point he “snaps” Darcy’s neck with the assistance of a sound effect.

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Joe Bob demonstrates the use of sound effects as he fake kills Darcy.
No mail girls were harmed in the filming of this episode.

Pages to Print

The film is based off of the graphic novel Rottentail by David C. Hayes and Kevin Moyers. Initially self-published, Source Point Press picked up the novel and are responsible for its translation onto screen. The film is very stylized and Joe Bob says it gives Re-Animator (1985) vibes. 

Nemec is a big fan of graphic novels, and had read the story prior to the film’s production. He ended up becoming a co-producer of the film. Joe Bob believes Nemec should get more praise for his role as Peter/Rottentail, and the hosts bemoan his lack of availability to come on the episode.

Furthering my belief that Joe Bob is secretly a huge fan of Lifetime Christmas movies, he highlights that director Skiba is perhaps best known for his work on the network. I am continually baffled at how many of these Christmas movies he can name and refuse to believe he doesn’t actually cozy up to watch them.

Tis The Season?

Speaking of Christmas, this week’s mail call features a letter originally sent back in December. Joe Bob immediately senses what is going on and chides Darcy, “I do not want letters that make everyone cry.” Brad from Loretto, Kentucky writes in to share his Halloween memories with his daughter. Unfortunately, she passed away at the age of 20 before Brad had a chance to share The Last Drive-In with her.  It’s a sobering reminder that we truly do not know how much time we have left to spend with someone.  

No, Wait, Come Back!

It is understandable why some folks were upset with the new format change of the series. However, the episode is still full of The Last Drive-In spirit. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but it feels as if there was more time & space for host segments. At points, Joe Bob and Darcy were breaking in almost every 15 minutes. It’s very much still the same show we love, just now featuring more anticipation.  

My rating for Rottentail: 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

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My rating for the episode: 4.3 out of 5 stars (4.3 / 5)

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