Directed by: David Prior || Produced by: Ross Richie, Stephen Christy
Screenplay by: David Prior || Starring: James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Stephen Root, Ron Canada, Robert Aramayo, Joel Courtney, Sasha Frolova
Music by: Christopher Young, Lustmord || Cinematography: Anastos N. Michos || Edited by: Andrew Buckland, David Prior || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 137 minutes
I’ve written before on Express Elevator to Hell that I like the ideas of most popular or cult horror films more than I like most actual horror films. Maybe my problem is that I’m a stickler for pacing in feature films (many independent horror movies are little more than glorified shorts ballooned to 90 minutes) or how I don’t have any interest in paranormal pseudoscience (e.g. electronic voice phenomena, ghost hunting, exorcisms, etc.), but regardless, I find the premises of many high-profile horror pictures more intriguing than their execution.
One of the better executed horror movies of the last several years that got lost amongst both COVID-19’s impact on world cinema and the purchase of 20th Century Fox by Walt Disney was the feature directorial debut of David Prior, The Empty Man. Released in rough-cut form in October 2020 with apparent disdain by the then new parent executives at Disney, The Empty Man died a quick death in theatres before being dumped on various video-on-demand platforms, where it was forgotten (it still has no physical media or Blu-Ray release) until certain popular film critics (e.g. Chris Stuckmann, Red Letter Media) spotlighted it as a potentially overlooked gem. Whether The Empty Man grows into a true cult genre film a la most of John Carpenter’s misunderstood filmography remains to be seen, but for my part, it may be one of the most ambitious and eclectic horror films of the 2010s (principal photography took place from 2016-2017), not to mention one of my personal favorites.
Most everything about The Empty Man’s narrative structure and cinematographic execution reads differently than either the standard Hollywood studio “scary movie” formula (e.g. It [2017, 2019], The Conjuring [2013, 2016, 2021]) or the “slow-burn, atmospheric” style of most independently produced horror (e.g. It Comes at Night , I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House , anything by Ti West, etc.). Its 137-minute running time, gargantuan for a standalone feature of the genre, is indicative of this nontraditional format: The Empty Man opens with a near perfect, 20-minute prologue set in the Bhutanese Himalayas with no major characters from the primary storyline, serving only to establish the origin and abilities of the primary Lovecraftian threat; we then transition to our main cast, protagonist (John Badge Dale), and setting in small town Missouri, USA, where that threat has apparently spread and has started to infect (re: haunt) the local populace; a prolonged flashback retold to Dale by some of the most realistically portrayed high-school characters in recent memory elaborates on the titular spectre, transforming the story into a well made but more conventional slasher for half an hour; for the hour after that, Dale investigates the disappearance of his friend (Marin Ireland) and former lover’s daughter (Sasha Frolova), who was involved with a cult based in nearby St. Louis that worships an incarnation of that now endemic Empty Man legend; the film concludes with multiple batshit insane, surrealist FX-driven sequences and a borderline nonsensical character-twist that echo fellow Lovecraftian films The Void (2016) and Prince of Darkness (1987).
How the movie transitions into different flavors of horror every 45 minutes or so is a major strength of The Empty Man. These structural twists feel natural and escalate narrative stakes as the story develops, refreshing the setting, character perspectives, and understanding of the overarching supernatural enemy. The only major fault in this unorthodox structure is a significant revelation about Dale’s backstory late in the final act, which, without spoiling any details, reduces his character’s agency with a tired “Chosen One“-esque plot device.
In terms of visuals, the film is just as accomplished as its script, hinting at great things in David Prior’s future if he ever directs another feature where he’s in charge of the final cut. The production values and set-design of the prologue in particular are impressive, with extensive weather FX, perfect high and low-key lighting arrangements, and an immaculate sense of dread that builds mood while also showing — not telling — expository information critical to the larger plot. In the primary storyline set in the Midwestern US, darker nighttime cinematography dominates both outdoor rural backdrops and grimy, rustic urban environments. The film’s standout sequence may be Dale’s prolonged investigation of a supposedly abandoned campsite, which extends from day to night and ends with a terrific foot chase.
While The Empty Man’s title and marketing feel reminiscent of generic teen thrillers like Slender Man (2018) or The Bye Bye Man (2017), its actual story and direction are far more ambitious, blending everything from the occultist horror of Hereditary (2018) with the Lovecraftian overtones of In the Mouth of Madness (1995) and the procedural tension of Seven (1995). Even in normal, non-pandemic times with proper studio distribution, I have difficulty envisioning a scenario where David Prior’s first feature makes much more than its budget given its diverse narrative flavors, eclectic combination of horror subgenres, and lack of an easily summarized premise. That’s a shame because The Empty Man entertained and has stuck with me longer than any scary movie I’ve seen since the coronavirus pandemic began, save for perhaps The Invisible Man (2020).
In other words, this movie may have imprinted on me because it avoids the trappings and clichés of both the average major studio horror picture and the typical independent, A24-type dramatic horror: It is neither wholly dependent on mood and spooky atmosphere to bloat a short film-concept to feature length, nor does it rely on overdone, bland references to paranormal nonsense and overacted exorcism rituals. It charts a third path.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Creative, multilayered, and ambitious to a fault, David Prior’s The Empty Man thinks outside its genre’s box to create a nontraditional supernatural epic that feels grander than the FX-driven, big-budget It films and ballsier than self-referential auteur pictures like Malignant (2021). The film’s repeated shifts in storyline, tone, and cinematographic style pay off.
— However… a final twist in the final act involving our protagonist’s origins, an otherwise consistent, relatable James Badge Dale, confuses the viewer instead of unsettling them. Whichever way you interpret it, the reveal makes no sense.
? Hail Paimon! Hail Paimon! Hail Paimon! Oh, wait… wrong movie.