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DIRECTED BY: David Prior
FEATURING: James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Sasha Frolova, Stephen Root
PLOT: James Lasombra, ex-cop and widower, offers to help find his friend’s daughter and discovers he’s being pursued by a malevolent spiritual force.
COMMENTS: David Prior’s feature debut is a horror movie, a thriller, a melodrama, and an exploration of dark spirituality. It’s stuffed to the gills with cultists, menace, and twists, all drizzled with snark. It’s brimming with so many ideas that its title becomes nearly ironic. Sure sure, it features a tulpa with an appetite whose current manifestation evokes the “
slender empty man.” Additionally, the protagonist is empty on the inside: his wife and son died some years prior. In fact, the introductory scene (a thorough twenty-two minutes) culminates with a hapless hiker slipping into an empty space in some Bhutanese mountain. But if any one criticism is to be leveled against The Empty Man, it’s that there is just too much of everything.
It starts with excessive location detail. The Bhutanese mountain in question is precisely identified in a superimposed opening title card, scored by foreign drone-singing, and emphasized further by a passing bus-load of Buddhist monks, a wall of spinning prayer bells, and bunches of fluttering prayer flags. Guess where those four random mid-’90s mountaineers are? Exactly where they shouldn’t be. After they meet their grisly but otherwise nebulous fate, we’re brought back home (and to present-day) with the title card “Webster Mills, MO, 2018”. In case we didn’t trust their word, there’s a shot of a water tower with the town’s name slapped across it. In the (second) introductory scene we meet James Lasombra, a grizzled forty-something who runs a home security business. His adventure features teen disappearances, teen deaths, expository expostulation from a goth-pixie daughter figure, the “covertly” sinister Pontifex Institute, and recurring flashback nightmares breaking through his doxepin regimen.
This rich vein of material coupled with countless I-don’t-trust-the-audience reminders made me feel that its 137 minutes was both too brief and overly long. The camera might linger obviously on a detail in one scene and then swing back to it when James reaches the relevant point in his investigation. As he drives through the rainy nights of Webster Mills, earlier lines of dialogue repeat in his memory. And Prior makes the regrettable choice of providing an uncut version of a key flashback that would have left things more interesting, and still adequately explained, had he trusted his viewer to have been actually watching the movie.
But I can’t dislike a movie for its eagerness to tell as much story as it can. An opening credits tip-off strongly hint that The Empty Man has something to do with a comic book universe, which helps explain the problem. Prior’s movie should have been no shorter than a mini-series. It could then explore: the Himalayan incident in more depth; the unclear history between James and Detective Villiers; the mythos of “the Empty Man” in contemporary American society; and the socio-spiritual machinations of the Pontifex Institute. In future, I hope Prior adopts either an exhaustive or a less-is-more approach−not both.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Advertised, however slightly, as a traditional horror film, this is a truly surreal and strange piece of work, anchored by some top-notch craft elements, but weakened a bit by a bloated running time and a conclusion that likely left the few people who saw it in theaters more annoyed than thrilled… How do you sell a film as surreal and unsettling as ‘The Empty Man’? You don’t even try. If you’re lucky, the audience finds it on their own.”–Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com (contmporeaneous)