Exhuming The Empty Man
Cast your mind back to 2020. With the pandemic in full swing, if the state of the film industry was on your mind at all, it wasn’t cause for a huge amount of optimism. As the future of the cinematic experience looked uncertain at best, Disney began surfeiting itself on former competitor 20th Century Fox’s entire catalogue, dispensing with anything that didn’t fit with the company vision. If you were working on a film for Fox, especially one as beguiling as David Prior’s The Empty Man, this was hardly the ideal time to share your vision with the world.
Adapted from the graphic novel of the same name, Prior’s film strips away some of the more junky aspects of the text while retaining an enjoyably pulpy atmosphere. The film opens with an exhilarating sequence set in the Himalayas circa 1995, in which four friends on a hiking trip make an alarming discovery – then suffer dire consequences. This 22-minute setpiece works as a self-contained film in its own right and establishes the film’s unique fusion of mysticism, cosmic horror, and lurid thrills. Prior then relocates to present-day Missouri, and we are introduced to James Badge Dale as James Lasombra (“la sombra” is Spanish for “the shadow” or “the shade”), a former cop evidently buckling under the weight of some past trauma. We first meet Lasombra on his birthday, which he spends deleting Coronas alone at a Mexican restaurant in an excruciatingly painful sequence. Although living a broadly solitary existence, he is friends with his neighbour (Marin Ireland), whose teenage daughter’s disappearance leads Lasombra to an urban legend about an entity called “The Empty Man” and the sinister Pontifex Institute, a centuries-old secret society overseen by Stephen Root’s loquacious cult leader.
Prior had cut his teeth as a special features director, with a consistent working relationship with David Fincher. According to Prior, Fox initially supported him during the production of The Empty Man, which was to be his feature debut. However, once leadership was restructured, the new suits were perplexed by the expensive, difficult-to-categorise film that Prior was working on. In the chaos of the pandemic release schedule and the Disney-Fox merger, the decision was made to dump The Empty Man in an obligatory late-October horror gap, a full two years after shooting wrapped, without any real attempt to market it. Casting a cursory eye over The Empty Man, it would be easy to dismiss it as simply another creepypasta cash-in like Slender Man or The Bye Bye Man, but this does Prior’s film a tremendous disservice.
While the film is certainly inspired by modern folklore like Slender Man, these touchpoints serve more as an example of the film’s concerns - primarily how repetition leads to cliche, which robs legitimately powerful notions of their original gravity. At one point, Root’s character explains how the Nietzsche quotation “if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you” has become, in his words, “a fridge magnet,” but, on reflection, the banality conceals a genuinely forceful idea. The Empty Man could easily be mistaken for a film that relies on cliches as wide-ranging as a blood-soaked attack in a shower and the theme du jour of the past decade: “It’s actually about trauma”. Surely Prior, who confidently name-checks his philosophical inspirations, couldn’t be so foolish as to inadvertently pack his debut with a litany of TVTropes fodder? But what Prior is up to is both cleverer than this, and more interesting than the brand of smug post-modernism that has dogged some latter–day horror sequels. Prior’s deft hand ensures the tone never comes across as winking or insincere, and even apparently rote sequences still thrill under his direction.
The process of summoning The Empty Man (similar to the lore at the heart of Candyman) involves blowing into a bottle on a bridge after dark and is implied to have ancient origins, gradually transformed over time into a game teenagers play. It is, of course, more than just a game, and the fabled outcome that “on the first night you hear him, on the second night you see him, and on the third night, he finds you” is far from pure fiction.
The depiction of the teenagers (hilariously, students at “Jacques Derrida High School”) who conduct the summoning ritual is one of the aspects that mark The Empty Man as a film of its era, offering an insightful portrait of doomer malaise. While the scene on the bridge has a by-the-numbers predictability to it (not necessarily a criticism given the film’s concerns), something about the high-schoolers casual relationship with their own mortality gives the sequence a gloomy, tragic air that evokes Gen Z’s resignation to the fact the world they’ve inherited is on the brink of destruction. In the source material, the setting is explicitly apocalyptic, whereas, in Prior’s film, it feels like it's happening gradually, subperceptibly, like the frog in the slowly heating bath. In a later scene, Lasombra maces someone and shoves them in the back of a car in broad daylight; he checks to see if anyone saw, and not a single passer-by has looked up from their phone. A sense of resigned obliviousness pervades The Empty Man - even a high-schooler suddenly vanishing and leaving a suggestive note scrawled in blood on her mirror isn’t deemed worthy of investigation by the police. As the subject is over eighteen, it is presumed she ran away.
Amanda, the missing girl, is present at the summoning, although her fate is distinct from the others. She is played by Sasha Frolova, an incredibly striking young actress with glassy eyes and a geometric haircut. Her performance renders Amanda as more than just a cipher. In an early scene, she espouses the virtues of The Pontifex Institute, with all the tragic devotion of someone with Kool-Aid on their lips. Prior had originally conceived Amanda as something closer to Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer, an all-American cheerleader type harbouring a dark secret, but was taken aback by Frolova’s audition. Her look is all childlike innocence, but the intensity of her gaze suggests an unsettling worldliness that adds ambiguity to her disappearance.
Some have taken issue with the resolution of The Empty Man and while Prior has argued that most criticisms rest on taking it too literally, it certainly asks a lot from the viewer. Regardless – sometimes it's the journey, not the destination. The Empty Man is a rare thing, a handsomely budgeted studio horror film that offers more than simple ghost-train thrills. Instead, Prior has fun toying with lofty ideas like Buddhist thought, filtering them through a horror lens to create something at once intelligent and frightening. The veil of obscurity has imbued The Empty Man with a certain arcane appeal, but it is heartening to see its reputation grow.