The Empty Man

The Empty Man ★★★★

The first "Where did this come from?" surprise I've seen in a year. Maybe years. Ostensibly a sub-Conjuring modern horror adapted from non-Marvel or DC IP (Boom! Studios, in this case), the movie was directed by David Prior, an editor and filmmaker whose most prominent credits appear to be making-of Blu-Ray bonus feature documentaries on David Fincher films like Zodiac and The Social Network. Why or how he got a chance with this film isn't really clear, but it does feel like the sort of small miracle that's been rubbed out of the Hollywood system of late. And unlike, say, Don't Breathe, Lights Out or other contemporaneous mid-level horror hits, there is no wink here. This one was filmed in 2017 and effectively sidelined amidst the Disney-Fox merger; it makes sense, sadly, since there is virtually no precedent for Disney marketing a film this grave, violent, and quietly sinister. Dumped into theaters three years later during a global pandemic at the end of an era in theatrical exhibition feels like a cosmically cruel fate for any movie, if not a too on-the-nose metaphor for what overzealous movie fans have been griping about for years—the erosion of the middle. This is pure middle. But maybe there is a glimmer of upside: this movie has "cult discovery in waiting" written all over it.

Prior has Fincherian tendencies—ominous low angle shots; creepy dolly movement through seemingly pleasant settings; menacing zooms; diorama-like portraits of urban and suburban despair, dollhouse fright punctured by ghastly violence; a palpably unnerving sound design including a whispering sonic cue that haunts every sequence in which the titular monster announces his arrival. There are sequences in which characters leave rooms but the camera doesn't follow them right away, leaving us with little more than dread and emptiness. Long corridors stretch across the frame. Inserts galore. The characters almost never smile. There is a meticulousness, with lots of purpose and decision-making at play; no wasted images, no messy cutting. At a certain point it all becomes irretrievably weird. And above all, it is shamelessly long; 140 minutes of unfolding ambient evil, including a gripping 20-minute prologue set in the Himalayas. This is proudly grim, patient, and scary when it needs to be; watch it in the dark.

It feels as though The Empty Man was made by someone who's been waiting a long time to get a shot like this. This movie doesn't have Se7en's trap-door script or Fight Club's chaotic sense of humor, or even the giddy, eventized WHAT HAPPENS NEXT anxiety of recent Blumhouse horror. But there's craft. Star James Badge Dale has a habit of being the not-quite star that the real heads root for; from Rubicon to The Lone Ranger, Only the Brave to Hightown he often seems to lead projects that have advance buzz and no follow-through. This is no exception, and like those movies and series, there's a lot here worth unpacking and examining. Urban myth, religious zealotry, the powers of persuasion, the fear of corruption—it's all tied in together. At one point Badge Dale's ex-detective wanders into a house showing 1953's The Robe on TV, a Hollywood epic shot in CinemaScope and also released by Fox—that film is about a Roman military tribune who commands the unit responsible for Jesus' Crucifixion. Not a coincidence, that clip. These themes and formal choices are far from novel—it's derivative nature feels like a lost art in and of itself. Big-studio productions serving low-culture grotesquerie thanks to well-educated technocratic artists/obsessives. I long for this, preemptively. We went through the looking glass, and then we broke it.

Sean liked this review