The Empty Man (2020) Review
Writer/director David Prior’s The Empty Man has been one of my most anticipated films for what seems like forever. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Prior’s 2008 short AM1200 and consider it one of the few films to really catch the feel of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos. And that’s without being based on one of his stories.
I’ve also often wondered why Prior hadn’t done another film since then. And then The Empty Man was announced, filmed and sat on the shelf for two years before getting released to what few theatres were still open as a Halloween offering from 20th Century Studios. And now that I’ve gotten to see it, does it live up to my expectations?
The Empty Man opens in the Himalayas in 1995 with Paul (Aaron Poole, The Void, Tainted), one of a quartet of hikers stumbling into a cave opening and discovering a strange skeleton. Becoming trapped in an abandoned cabin by a storm soon becomes the least of their problems
Fast forward to 2018 in the town of Webster Mills, MO. James Lasombra (James Badge Dale, The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, Hold the Dark) was a cop, now he runs a security store and drinks a lot. Amanda (Sasha Frolova, Blood Surf, Red Sparrow), the daughter of his friend Nora (Marin Ireland, Piercing, The Dark and the Wicked) stops by to check up on him and ends up expounding some strange sounding philosophical theories. When she vanishes the next day, leaving a message in blood on her mirror her mother asks him to look for her. He’s going to find a lot more than he could ever imagine.
With a title like The Empty Man and a plot involving missing teens I was expecting something along the lines of Slenderman. The scenes with them summoning him by blowing into a bottle they found on a bridge after dark certainly have that kind of feel. Thankfully though it quickly, and shockingly takes off in a different direction.
Actually with a running time of two hours and seventeen minutes, very little happens quickly in The Empty Man. The film is based, apparently loosely, on a series of graphic novels by Cullen Bunn and it feels like Prior wanted to pack as much of them as he could into the film. And there is a lot to unpack as Lasombra wrestles with his own demons while spiralling down a rabbit hole of The Pontifex Institute, a cult led by Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root, The Man in the High Castle, Get Out) and the entity they’re trying to unleash on the world.
That might sound like a simple enough plot, but the film holds its mysteries, slowly, and often cryptically, revealing clues. For most of its length The Empty Man, like AM1200, is much more interested in building atmosphere and a palpable sense of fear than delivering outright shocks. The score by Christopher Young (Sinister, Hellraiser) and Brian Williams aka Lustmord, does a great job of amplifying that sense of fear and dread. If you’re interested, Its available on Spotify and other music streaming platforms.
The shocks are mostly saved for the last act. That’s when The Empty Man stops being a slow burn and lets its beast out, literally and figuratively. And as strange as the creature itself is, that’s not the weirdest part of the film’s finale. The story goes into a couple of really strange places and leaves a couple of things open to a bit of interpretation.
The Empty Man certainly lived up to my expectations, it had the same creepy vibe as Prior’s prior film plus a frantically paced final act. And, while there’s no explicit connection, if you have seen AM1200 you’ll see several similar themes in this film. And if you haven’t seen it, it’s available free to watch on Vimeo.
The Empty Man arrives on Digital January 12th from 20th Century Studios. You can check its website for more info.