I think it’s safe to say the majority of moviegoing people are well beyond tired of the overdone yet newer horror tropes like the found-footage genre, the “based on a true story,” and most of all the $100 per jump scare per person films. This is, after all, a decade of horror rebirth: deeper meanings in their stories, a true art brought to the craft itself, using A-list casts who can portray the best and worst of emotions. Think Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar, as well as Robert Eggers’s The Witch and The Lighthouse. There are loads of others in this new wave of artistic horror that are usually helmed by the Oscar-nominated studio A24. Still, in even more recent years, other studios have stepped up their games, and 20th Century Fox’s The Empty Man is no exception.
Let me first preface this: if you haven’t heard of this movie, don’t worry, this isn’t some indie review of an indie hit made by an indie studio. As I said, this was a big budget 20th Century Fox feature, and it was released with high hopes. That is, until shortly after its release Fox merged with Disney. Disney, being the “family friendly” company they pan themselves as, didn’t want an R-rated horror film under the Disney name, and they quickly pulled the film from theaters faster than most could see it, including myself. I remember telling myself, “This could be a complete hit or miss, but I still want to see it.” Then bam! The next week it was gone and Disney made no apology for it.
Thankfully, we have HBOMax as well as HBO’s add-ons to Amazon Prime and such, that we’re able to view it before it hits Disney’s R-rated vault (not a real thing, but we wouldn’t be surprised, would we?). The title seems all too familiar with the likes of the Slender Man sensation still rampaging the dark corners of the internet, but this film has no semblance to the skinny dude in a tux. In fact, the part of the name “empty” is extremely accurate: for the majority of the film we never even see him. He’s empty, so to speak.
James Badge Dale of 13 Hours and the show “24” stars as ex-cop James Lasombra, an alcoholic and antidepressant addict who can’t seem to cope with a mysterious yet evidently tragic past without self-medicating. But a full 20 minutes before we see him or even the title of the film, some characters are mountain climbing the blizzard of Bhutan in 1995. The lingering shots by cinematographer Anastas Michos provides a cold and overbearing widescreen snowscape that already has the audience shivering and fearful for no other reason than for that of warmth and…something that just doesn’t seem right. One of the hikers sees something in the distance and, ignoring his friends’ advice to wait for them, he falls down a massive crevice and into the looming darkness below. In a very quick and smart move by both the writer and the characters, the fellow hikers immediately tie a harness to one of the members and he repels down into the cavern. Feet landing on a pile of bones and not a hurt friend, the dread only escalates from there. He finds his friend sitting in a criss-cross position, mumbling something while staring directly at a skeleton embedded into the cavern’s wall.
I’ll avoid spoilers, but nothing goes well from there. How else would any effective horror movie begin? Lead character Lasombra is confronted with his neighbor’s daughter gone missing. The inner cop in him is compelled to find the girl within a hazy mist of trauma and cultish findings. The deeper the film dredges, the more confusing yet intriguing it becomes. What was real becomes dream and what was dream becomes real, and everything in between is up in the air until the very end.
It has all the makings of today’s general film cliches. It has the jumps and plentiful scares, it’s based on a graphic novel, and it carries a massive metaphor for something deeper than just a simple boogeyman. Yet with the scares come fallacies and self-predictions proven wrong; with the basis of a graphic novel it never goes superhero on its audience, nor does it ever feel like something a graphic novel or comic would ever turn into without its source material heading face first into its viewer; and the metaphor, the final punch the writer/director throws in the gut isn’t blatantly obvious like some cautionary tale, but it leaves just enough room in its ending for some self-reflection and ambiguity on the side that demand a second viewing.
The entire tone, plot, and feel of The Empty Man reminds me immensely of Gore Verbinski’s 2002 smash hit The Ring, complete with its teenagers following a trendy “Candyman” type dare, only this time instead of watching a cursed tape, all one must do is blow into an empty bottle and think of “him.” Also similar to Verbinski’s Ringu remake is the investigative perspective. Naomi Watts portrays a journalist who gets too involved with her niece’s mysterious death, and thus, our James Badge Dale as an ex-cop gets in too deep with his neighbor’s daughter’s disappearance. These similarities may seem, well, too similar, and I’ll be the first to admit that they are. But with today’s trove of the fun but straight-to-video “Llamageddon”’s and “Sharknado”’s, to the critically praised and artistic It Follows and Us, first time director David Prior, who’s directorial past consists mainly of behind-the-scenes documentaries, proves his talent as both storyteller and director from opening frame to final shot.
JD Stars: ***1/2 out of ****