Between the global pandemic, studio mergers, and the overwhelming onslaught of content flooding streaming services, it has never been easier for a movie to slip through the cracks. Years from now, we will no doubt look back on an entire generation of great films that were lost to the ever-shifting chaos of the industry over these past few years. What does feel safe to say is that when we are discussing the great works lost to this strange time, 2020’s The Empty Man will be in the conversation.
If you’re interested in the details of its tumultuous production, director David Prior has been remarkably candid about the process in recent interviews. Long story short: The film, a very loose adaptation of Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey’s comic series of the same name, was marred by reshoots, recuts, the Fox-Disney merger, a constantly shifting release date, and losing its original producer in the middle of production. After sitting on a shelf for years, it was tossed into theaters in the middle of the pandemic, grossed a paltry $4 million worldwide, and was quickly forgotten. It is currently only available to rent via Amazon, and as of the writing of this story, there are no plans for a DVD/Blu-ray release.
To be fair, even if theaters were open for business as usual, one could be forgiven for chalking The Empty Man up as skippable after its first trailer, which, in one of the more damning marketing moves in recent memory, dropped about a week before the film hit theaters. The film’s borderline nonexistent marketing paints the James Badge Dale vehicle as a sort of Slender Man–adjacent creepypasta horror, the sort of bland Blumhouse rip-off designed to come and go with as little noise as possible. Its initial critical reception was middling at best, though it even went underseen in that respect — its current 50 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes is based on 14 official reviews. It’s the sort of perfect storm that renders a film nonexistent in the cultural consciousness.
And that’s a shame, because The Empty Man very much warrants a place there.
It’s paradoxically difficult to articulate why that is without delving into details of plot and theme, despite this being the sort of film best enjoyed blind. All you really need to know going in is that The Empty Man clocks in at two hours and 20 minutes (it flies by), features a 25-minute prologue set in the Himalayas, and plays like a Fincherian take on mid-aughts J-horror. It is wildly ambitious — at times to a fault — and tosses around more big ideas in its first hour than many great films have in their entire run time.
The plot (minor spoilers ahead), at least on a surface level, follows Badge Dale’s James Lasombra, a former detective sleepwalking through his day-to-day after the death of his wife and son in an accident. When the daughter of a family friend seemingly runs away, her mother asks for Lasombra’s help in tracking her down. The search takes him to, in no particular order: a cult, a group of kids spooked by an urban legend, a campground, and a mysterious hospital patient.
The Empty Man is a film about, among other things, repetition — largely in relation to ritual, belief, and religion. The urban-legend elements on display in its misguided marketing are used as an entry point into larger existential quandaries. Details surrounding the titular specter will ring as familiar to anyone who has seen Candyman or tried to summon Bloody Mary at a sleepover. As the kids around Lasombra’s town tell it, to summon the Empty Man, you stand on a bridge and blow over the lip of a bottle while thinking about him. The first night following this, you will hear him. The next night, you will see him. And on the third night, he will come for you.
Prior is less interested in what happens when the Empty Man comes as he is in how these practices came to be, in the idea that the bottle may have once been a pipe and that what’s being summoned isn’t the Empty Man at all but something with a name long forgotten. Ritual and repetition over time perhaps cannot help but give life to whatever is on the receiving end.
The film’s visual language leaves you queasy, feeling certain that something isn’t quite right, even if you can’t articulate what it is. You won’t realize until a shot has cut that it evoked an image from a few scenes earlier. You’ll watch a character pass a framed picture and only realize upon second viewing (you will want, and need, a second viewing) that it depicts the cottage from the film’s prologue. Your hair will come to stand on end at the sight of bridges.
Perhaps most notably, Prior plays with the visual signature of the director he shadowed for years as a producer of DVD special features. David Fincher’s meticulous tracking of his characters’ every motion via camera movement is subverted here — the camera will linger on an empty space before any character enters it. It will lag in following them out of a room, ruminating in the uncomfortable stillness they leave behind. It all lends to a feeling of cosmic insignificance. Our protagonists aren’t the heroes of their journey but rather pawns moving through a space that existed long before them, and will remain long after they leave it.
And then there’s the film’s signature setpiece, a tour de force of horror filmmaking that takes place toward the end of its second act. The less said about it the better — again, the film is best seen as blindly as possible — but Prior’s filmmaking prowess is in full flex mode as Lasombra investigates the aforementioned campground. It’s the sort of sequence that, a mere year into the 2020s, stakes its claim as the scariest horror moment of the decade.
The film is not without faults, but they’re the sort of faults that hardly seem to matter when weighed against everything it does right. The Empty Man feels like something of a miracle. Horror films of this scale, of this budget, of this raw, unbridled ambition, aren’t supposed to get made anymore. It is shocking that it was green-lit to begin with and entirely unsurprising, in a sense, that it was shelved by Disney. This movie is borderline unmarketable, an existential cosmic epic that questions every pillar upon which we’ve built our perceptions of reality. It is made to be discovered, to find its audience slowly over time.
Cult films like the sort The Empty Man seems destined to become live and die by word of mouth, by the way their fans sing their praises with the fervor of zealots. As The Empty Man’s reputation grows, take note. Repetition, belief, and time cannot help but give life to what lies on the receiving end.