There is a lot of misdirection in David Prior’s ambitious, scary, and exhilaratingly convoluted The Empty Man. For its first 20 minutes it plays like lost-in-the-wilderness adventure horror, following a group of American friends backpacking through the mountains of Bhutan who come across something strange and terrifying, which proceeds to tear them apart, emotionally and physically. Then for much of the next hour, it becomes something else: an urban legend story centered on a group of teenagers in a small Missouri town who are stalked by something called “The Empty Man.” Like a more cryptic Candyman, if you blow on an empty bottle by a bridge, and call his name, he appears; and like the curse from The Ring, it’s just a matter of days until he gets you.
But wait: The Empty Man then takes the form of a detective procedural, following James (James Badge Dale), an ex-cop grieving over the death of his wife and child who has been tasked by his friend—and ex-lover—with investigating the disappearance of her daughter, Amanda (Sasha Frolova). The deeper he gets, the more the story transforms once again, moving entirely away from suburban teen angst and slasher scares into a more literal psychological realm, and revealing itself as a film about widespread mind control, focused on a nihilistic cult that has spread over the town, and perhaps beyond, like an infectious disease. And the cult has big plans for James.
The Empty Man is not, despite the above description, an anthology film. So how does one movie manage to incorporate all these disparate horror subgenres without feeling remotely incoherent? Tightly wound while remaining flexible enough to keep numerous balls spinning in the air, Prior’s film, loosely based on a more sci-fi-tinged graphic novel by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Ray, manages to unite its references, plot points, and characters into a tonally consistent whole. No genre pastiche, The Empty Man persuasively uses the age-old theme of wayward humans seeking spiritual sustenance to combine its many forms. After all, how are American adventurers seeking enlightenment in the Eastern Himalayas all that different from dispossessed adolescents looking for catharsis with scary tall tales? We all need something to believe in.
One of the final films produced by Twentieth Century Fox before it was taken over by Disney—and thus was transmogrified into just, very oddly, 20th Century Studios—The Empty Man was unceremoniously dumped into theaters during the COVID pandemic. Understandably it might have been hard to market. Brainy and brawny, it’s a philosophically minded saga that’s not afraid of indulging in jump scares (the trashiest being a shower scene in which a young, nude woman is stabbed with a pair of scissors in the cheek—or is she stabbing herself?). As with any mystery overloaded with portents, the story gets slightly less satisfying as its revelations accumulate—and it never quite recaptures the brilliance of its opening, pre-title sequence in Bhutan, an entirely fresh, succinctly shot and edited variation on the backpacking trip gone wrong, with blinding white snow taking the place of pitch darkness. Nevertheless, it’s clear that the film’s surprises are part of a rigorously thought-out framework and not twists for their own sake. The more James investigates, the more we begin to suspect that he plays a crucial part in this puzzle. Even Dale’s at times tiresomely masculine swagger and recurrent dad jokes (“I grew up in San Francisco,” he keeps saying, past the point of being charming) ultimately are revealed as part of the film’s design—and cruel ironies.
His search brings him to the Pontifex Institute, whose improbably grand facilities hide plenty of secrets (including, ominously, an empty file on James himself). It’s here that the film’s central ideas are spouted, by a creepy guru, Dr. Parsons (Stephen Root), whose central philosophy genuflects toward “the great binding nothingness of things.” This is when the film begins to take on a grandiose air that feels both overly baroque and entirely appropriate for a 21st century that appears to be constantly on the verge of apocalypse. This quality marks so much contemporary horror, fantasy, and sci-fi—movies no longer confine themselves to the tragedies of individual fatalities and loneliness, but instead grapple with extreme epidemics of death, destruction, and widespread social decay. The Empty Man manages to have it both ways; ultimately it’s a about one man’s psychological descent into “the great binding nothingness,” while also using his downward spiral to comment on modern humanity’s seemingly unstoppable drive toward self-destruction and desolation. •
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