The Empty Man

The Empty Man ★★★½

Written, directed, and co-edited by David Prior; The Empty Man, while providing some good 'ol zero calorie puns in regard to its fitting title, is quite possibly the embodiment of hybrid horror craftsmanship at its most ambitious, if somewhat uneven, overlong and definitely in critical need of reassembling in regard to its narrative editing.

First of all, if one's to think that the statement above is a hyperbole of sort then I'm afraid that's not what you'll witness as this review digs deeper into its maze. Taking into account that The Empty Man has zero marketing, a generic trailer (criminally so), black and white hollow poster, titular association with the horror-Man (Slender Man, The Bye Bye Man, The Midnight Man etc.), and being dumped just in time for the Halloween season to carve its way to people's jack of hearts, hell, it's not at all the reader's fault to assume for the worst in regard to this Blumhouse-y-but-actually-not feature. But trust me when I say this, nowhere has the final film been so far and detached from its marketed trailer that whoever's in charge of cutting it should be bar from doing the job ever again. Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name by Prior, The Empty Man often proves its many naysayers wrong for the majority of its viewing experience, relishing in a surprisingly carefully written script that's consistently filled with tons of engrossing ideas and concepts rarely discussed in the genre; very much the opposite of banal unoriginality and only very barely has a section that qualifies as teen horror.

Although the whole event takes its paranormal space from urban legends and it acting as sort of virus in the way it spreads, the legend of The Empty Man can actually be traced back to its foothold in Buddhism rather than new age spirituality; discussing on spiritual concepts such as "oneness" in everything, "transmission" of ideas, existence of the Tulpa, and even including Lovecraftian abstracts the likes of travelers reaching into mountains and caves of far unknown, a mysterious doomsday cult, and the revelation of a prophet-antenna in service of beings beyond mortal comprehension. As a Buddhist enthusiast and lover of Lovecraft, the film is decidedly not empty of content for me. Indeed, there's actually little of a Slender Man-esque type of story here, which is to say that it only occupies a small moment during the second act, as much as The Empty Man instead is more reminiscent towards Dagon and In the Mouth of Madness with shades of Stephen King's small-town supernatural crime-thriller. Unquestionably fascinating and even moreso when fused with the crux of the entire story (though the concludary narrative itself is rather bumpy and "simple" in hindsight, compared to such elaborate setups). While I can't truly distinguish Prior's writing assemblage as the result still gives off mixed signals especially in terms of the interweaving of all those ideas unto one coherent narrative, it's nonetheless a courageous attempt particularly in context of the current sphere of generic horror "blockbusters".

Moreover, I've also heard of Prior being some kind of protege of David Fincher, by which the latter's stylistic influence is noticeably present throughout. The debuting direction here is very much a mishmash of style and multiple subgenre hybrid, from supernatural horror, psychological horror, pseudo-detective thriller, and finally evolving to its final form of Lovecraftian occult at work. The Empty Man is, for all intent, a classic contemplative horror extensively styled and honed to sumptuous visual and technical craft, almost striking a decisive balance between the arthouse brand of A24 and the modern day fright machine as reinvigorated by James Wan and his peers (along with moments of levity). Shot by DP Anastos N. Michos, the cinematography spells out quintessential elegance and thoughtfulness of dark art, the kind of which you wouldn't typically expect in a movie that calls itself The Empty Man. With the exception of some drama-focused scenes, the creative use of framing, camerawork and overall mise en scene are impeccable; Prior's experience working for Fincher and his own interest in subconscious horror lead to an extremely riveting visual panache to be developed for the debuting director's eye. And Prior's & Andrew Buckland's editing too is deeply stylish at many points during, some bordering experimental and one transition even caught me by surprise with how great it's utilized.

As the creator of genuine terror, however, is where Prior truly excels and this aspect more or less acts as his calling card for future endeavor within the genre. Each and every one of the film's fright sequences deserve an appreciative nod because of how deliciously crafted and suffused in they're. Echoing the dreadful omnipresence of It Follows, a chilling scene involving a videotape à la Sinister, and a couple of demonic mirror routine with one of its kind (set around a bonfire) encapsulates what's arguably the best moment in the entire movie; trippy, scary and pretty funny. And of course, how can I forget the fact that the prologue itself is 20 minutes long, equipped with a radically different location (at the mountainside of Bhutan as opposed to later's suburban America) and characters, whilst quickly and effectively cementing the foreboding tone that's extraordinarily overwhelming, thanks to the similarly powerful sound design making the theatrical experience both trembling and soothing at multiple points. Unlike the main narrative, the prologue's status as worldbuilding as well as being the catalytic event also causes it to have awesome scares that are much more seamlessly executed, and is generally a better premise than what the viewer would be transmitted to for the next 117 minutes. Because of that, we've just arrived to Prior's drawbacks as director.

Inexperience tagged with enthusiasm can only get you so far, and that's certainly the unfortunate case with Prior for The Empty Man. You can almost feel the giddiness emanating through the dark screen, the unrestrained capabilities to do more and more while disregarding the "why" and "should". At 137 minutes, The Empty Man's runtime is long and it feels overlong, and as a primarily horror feature, that's a big no-no. Even though it's somewhat justified by having multiple aspects to its story, Prior's sense of pacing is wild and relentless, unaided by its careless editing that puts more emphasis towards scenes of dramatic nothingness (no pun intended) than those of genuine horror. I'm aware of the film's troubled background in regard to its shelving by Fox since 2018 and the fact that it's unceremoniously dumped in October (with the old 20th Century Fox logo at the opening, no less), so perhaps the editing itself is either interfered with or untainted at all, hence the rushed third act and sour ending. Performance-wise, the film likewise falls a little short in extracting memorable performances except for the underrated James Badge Dale as leading man James Lasombra. Seriously, guy has that old school charisma thing going on I'm surprised he doesn't get main roles left and right all these years.

Overall, The Empty Man currently has a total score of 17% on RT and a D+ grade by the CinemaScore audience, and a low four star rating from me. A horror wildcard with more than a few surprises up its sleeve, not guaranteed to be a good watch yet undeniably will not be what you're expecting either. If you're an open minded genre fan then I'd heartily recommend to see this in theaters.

Block or Report

Werner liked these reviews