‘The Empty Man’ (2020) Review

“Where were you?”

A couple of years ago I did a review of a short horror film called AM1200. There’s a whole story behind that – including ordering a copy straight from the director just so I could read the liner notes – but you can read that review here. The bottom line is that I liked the movie a lot and was looking forward to a feature film from the creator, David Prior.

Unfortunately for Prior (and for me) his first feature film turned into something of a horror show. There were weather related production delays, tax breaks that forced early screenings that… did not go well. And then the executive that had championed the production left just before Disney showed up to buy the studio.

When it finally did come time to release the film it seems like no one who was left at the studio knew what to do with it. So they dumped it like an inconvenient body in a back alley, with no fanfare, no promotion and a misleading trailer. Audiences and critics (what there were of them) seemed to expect a different kind of film, something like a teen-focused creepypasta/urban-legend mashup. Initial reactions were not kind.

The release was so limited and so undersold that I never even heard about it until months later when Sailor Monsoon included it in one of this Films I Saw monthly wrap-ups. “Hold on,” I thought, “that title sounds familiar…”

A quick look around at the various review outlets seemed to suggest The Empty Man was a bomb, barely comprehensible and derivative of a number of other films that weren’t any good either. That did not sound like something the filmmaker that had crafted such a tense, creepy little film as AM1200 would produce, and I wondered just how bad studio interference had been. Sadly, I held off from seeing it for months, expecting to be disappointed.

I was only disappointed in myself for waiting so long to see it.

The Medium
I ‘own’ The Empty Man digitally on Amazon, mostly because there’s no Blu-ray release. There is apparently a DVD release that could be rented from Red Box, but no mass market option and none on the horizon that I could find. It’s too bad, because I think this movie would look great on Blu-ray, and I’d dearly love a commentary track.

For streaming options, The Empty Man is free for subs on HBOMax, Cinemax and Spectrum On Demand. It can be rented from Apple TV only and purchased from the usual online vendors.

The Movie
The Empty Man is based on a Boom! Studios comic book series by Cullen Bunn and Vanessa R. Del Rey. Anyone who expects a straight-up adaptation is bound to be disappointed. The comic deals with an ongoing apocalypse, a pandemic of contagious insanity and violence. The film is more of an ‘inspired by’ production, though I suppose you could look at it as a prequel.

The first 20 minutes of the film features a group of young people climbing a remote mountain. The entire sequence is eerie and effective, involving a strange corpse and a countdown of days as one of their number (The Void’s Aaron Poole) becomes catatonic and horrific events begin to pile up. I really love this opening. I also think it’s extraneous. There’s a certain amount of myth-building going on with this opening, providing a background for the events that occur in the main body of the film, but if you just start at the 20 minute mark the film works perfectly fine. (It also drops the running time to under 2 hours.) I tried watching the film without the opening this time around and I think I actually prefer it that way. It leaves us more at-sea with the events of the film, much like our protagonist.

That’s James Lasombra, played by “hey I know that guy from something” James Badge Dale. Lasombra is that familiar broken-man character, an ex-cop still living with the grief of losing his wife and son in a car accident. Dale plays Lasombra as if his grief fills him like shards of glass – every movement, every glance, every interaction one of barely contained agony. This is a man just existing. We know this guy. We’ve seen him in a hundred films.

He’s not so internally focused on his misery that he can’t help a friend, though. Nora (Marin Ireland) and James have history, but when Nora’s daughter, Amanda (Sasha Frolova) goes missing James volunteers to help find her. His only clue is a phrase written on Amanda’s bathroom mirror in blood – “The Empty Man made me do it.”

You may, at this point, be wondering if the early responses to the film were correct. This sounds like something like Slender Man, maybe. Crossed with a traditional murder mystery and a late 90’s teen slasher flick. I know. I know that’s what it sounds like. What you’re missing is the performance. The sharpness of the cinematography. The editing. The lighting. The music (by Lustomrd) which is practically a character by itself. It’s just… creepy. The whole thing. All of it. Yes. That too. And everything drips with meaning. Even the main character’s name – Lasombra. The shadow. He’s a shadow of his former self, yeah, and so his life, but there’s another meaning that becomes clearer as the film progresses.

James tries to interview Amanda’s friends, but he can only find Davara (Samantha Logan) who tells him that The Empty Man is a local legend, a sort of boogeyman. The legend says that if you blow on an empty bottle on a certain bridge then you’ll summon the Empty Man. On the first day you’ll hear him. On the second you’ll see him. Then he’ll come get you. Guess how long it’s been since Amanda and her friends blew a bottle on the bridge?

When James investigates the bridge he finds the bodies of Amanda’s friends hanged beneath it, with the same “The Empty Man made me do it” phrase scrawled next to them.

Not Amanda though. She remains missing. And so James keeps looking, eventually finding his way to the Pontifex Institute, a cult posing as a self-help program. Amanda’s been there. And according to the cult leader, Arthur Parsons (played with unsettling earnestness by Stephen Root), Lasombra has been there before as well, though James is just as certain that he’s never been there before.

Things begin to unravel from there. James starts to hear sounds in his house, like someone approaching down a hallway though no one is there when he opens the door. Davara is killed by some kind of specter – or perhaps it was suicide. And the Pontifex Institute isn’t just some Scientology wannabe, it has plans, plans that include changing reality itself.

And James finds himself in the middle of it.

There are people who seem to define themselves by their trauma. It’s their loss and grief that make them who they are, as much or more so than any other history or behavior. This is true of a lot of people to one degree or another – I am who I am because of what I have been through. Fire forges steel and all that. For James, though, that core identity is scar tissue. Weak spots. Cracks through which the influence of the Empty Man can be felt.

James’ investigation has started pulling on a thread that will threaten his whole existence. And maybe ours as well.

In between there’s an old camp where rituals are held and intruders aren’t welcome. There are hospitals with strange patients. There are creepy films, creepy stuffed bears and creepy sub-basements where familiar chairs await. And of course there’s the Empty Man. Counting down the days until he can get James. Or until James can get him.

I’m keeping details purposefully vague, despite desperately wanting to discuss them, because this is a film that keeps you guessing and it’s worth experiencing the twists for yourself. There are elements of philosophy, identity and belief that mean that it’s also a film the rewards multiple viewings, even knowing what’s coming. Prior is layering meaning and references into every scene (even if some of them are just for fun, like the Exorcist nod in the opening scene).

The Bottom Line
If you missed The Empty Man or avoided it due to bad reviews, I urge you to give it a shot. I think in a few years we’ll be talking about it as a cult favorite, which is really just a way of saying it’s a film that didn’t get its best shot. If you like slow burn eeriness, twisty psychological horror or Lovecraftian atmosphere The Empty Man has all of that in spades. Add in some excellent performances, sharp editing, lovely cinematography and a fantastic soundtrack and you get something special.

An Aside
Several years ago my wife and I found ourselves in a McDonalds. It was late at night, we were both bedraggled and exhausted from a day (a week) spent moving into a new house. We just needed some food and a bed. A guy approached us and expressed concern. Then he started telling us about his church and how it could help people in bad situations like ours. It could fill us up, make us part of something. It might have been perfectly innocent, a concerned citizen trying to help. It felt creepy, though. Like he was hanging out waiting for people at their weakest, their lowest, to try and get them to join his church. He never did say what kind of church it was. He could easily have been talking about The Empty Man.

Sometimes I think we were lucky we were just tired and not that far from home.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.