Four friends are hiking in the Himalayas when one of them, Paul (Aaron Poole), hears a sound that the others cannot. Following it Paul falls into a crevasse. When his friend finds him he is horrified to find Paul sat immobile cross-legged in front of a horrifying tableau – a skeleton with multiple arms. Paul whispers a deadly warning “if you touch me you’ll die”. The warning is not heeded and things go very badly indeed.
Flash forward to the present and we meet James LaSombra (James Badge Dale) a former police detective who is marking time waiting to die after the death of his wife and child in a terrible car accident. He agrees to help a distraught friend Nora (Marin Ireland) whose 18-year-old daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) has gone missing. Amanda left a cryptic message on her mirror before she disappeared – “The Empty Man Made Me Do It”. Amanda and her friends had taken part in a game to summon “The Empty Man” – if you’re on a bridge and you find an empty bottle if you hold the bottle to your lips and blow while thinking of him then the Empty Man will appear. On the first night, you’ll hear him. On the second night, you’ll see him. And on the third night? He’ll come for you.
If that synopsis reminds you of Slender Man– the dire adaptation of a creepypasta story then think again. Because The Empty Man is a very different beast. I had never heard of the film until recently when every US film journalist I rate started posting about it. A troubled shoot, issues with re-shoots and the recent Disney takeover of Fox meant that The Empty Man had a disastrous rollout – it was dumped in cinemas at the height of the pandemic and will be making its way to Disney Plus UK on 9 July. But as befits a story about an urban legend The Empty Man is gaining a reputation as the must-see horror movie of the summer.
The Empty Man is a dread-inducing surrealist nightmare of a movie. Directed by David Prior and freely adapted from a Boom comic series of the same name by Cullen Bunn The Empty Man is an extraordinarily original horror. It’s about repetition, thought, collective consciousness and how ideas can infect like a virus. It’s about how our lives on a base level can be reduced to a loose-leaf folder of key moments. It’s about how time can strip ritual of all meaning but the power in the gestures remain. It’s at least three different movies in one. At 2 hours and 16 minutes, long The Empty Man is very long for a horror movie and yet weirdly it’s not long enough. At a certain point, the nerve shedding atmosphere gives way to a race to provide exposition as the movie hurtles towards its conclusion. You have to wonder if this might have worked better as a mini-series. There is just SO much going on. You have three very different films here all blended together. First, there is the neo-noir with the ex-detective helping the friend with whom he has a murky past find her lost daughter. Then there’s the movie about the terrifying cult who worship an ancient entity (oh yeah just as you feel you’ve gotten a grip on this movie a cult shows up). Finally, it’s a teen thriller riffing off Candyman and a million urban legends to wend its tale of The Empty Man. It’s not surprising the Disney people had no idea how to market it.
Everything about The Empty Man feels “off”. You are kept off-kilter from the first frame. The camera lingers on empty spaces. Many shots are lit with a yellowish-green tinge giving everything a sickly sheen. The soundtrack is a discordant hellscape and there is a clicking sound which while highly derivative of both Ju-On and Hereditary is still absolutely bloody awful to listen to and purposefully distressing. It’s a nerve-jangling movie. It’s like David Fincher decided to make a horror movie.
There aren’t many big brutal set pieces (although the taught opening 20 minutes are nigh on perfect) but there are so many disturbing images and exchanges that linger long in the memory. A friendly exchange – “I’m so glad you decided to come back’ has haunted me. There is a set-piece at the end of Act 2 which leaves the detective exclaiming “hell no” – a sentiment shared by anyone watching it.
Surrealist, disturbing and haunting The Empty Man deserves to find a genre audience. It has the makings of a bona fide cult classic- the sort of film where every moment will be freeze-framed and analysed for meaning. It’ll be haunting me for years.
The Empty Man is out for rent now on Amazon Prime and debuts on Disney Plus in the UK on 9 July