David Prior’s overlong occult horror is stylish but suffers from sluggish pacing and a lackluster hero.
Two-hours and sixteen minutes. There is a version of The Empty Man that’s a solid, efficient horror flick, and then there’s the version that’s two-hours and sixteen minutes. Unfortunately, we got the latter. Adapted from an independent comic book of the same name, this poorly paced, occasionally engaging exercise staggers along like its titular demon. If only there was a way to stop it, before it’s too late.
But as we learn, there’s no way to stop “The Empty Man.” He’s unleashed onto the world in a prologue sequence, set two decades before and thousands of miles away from the rest of the movie. A group of annoying hikers in the Eastern Himalayas cross a rickety bridge – soon after, one of their party accidently waltzes into a crevice. Inside the cavern below, he comes face-to-face with a creepy skeleton that looks like the space-jockey from “Alien” if it had a bunch of interlocked fingers. Over the next three days, the party perishes, and we flash-forward to meet our main character, James Lasombra (James Badge Dale).
He’s something of an empty man himself, an ex-cop wracked with guilt over the death of his wife and child a few years earlier. He sells pepper spray for a living and celebrates his birthday alone; as protagonists go, he’s about as compelling as a doormat. James gets an abrupt call from his estranged friend Nora: her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova), has gone missing. Someone’s scribbled “The Empty Man made me do it” on Amanda’s bathroom mirror – in blood.
James tracks down Amanda’s friends. He learns that a few days ago, she convinced her friends to summon the Empty Man by blowing into an empty bottle on a nearby bridge. He later stumbles on some evidence that Amanda may be connected to a cult that worships and communicates with the demon (Stephen Root, creepy as ever, shows up as one of the cult’s public speakers to do some alright dorm-room philosophizing).
Adapted from an independent comic book of the same name, this poorly paced, occasionally engaging exercise staggers along like its titular demon.
There’s a worthwhile screenplay buried inside this movie, one that a re-write or two could’ve whipped into shape. It’s got a dash of Hereditary here, a pinch of It Follows there, but the final film’s such a mess that it never feels derivative. In adapting the source material, writer/director David Prior couldn’t figure out if he wanted to make a more traditional fright-machine or a more psychological, slow burn horror film. Prior’s solution was to make both: at times the Empty Man and his spooky tricks are the main threat, later, we’re supposed to worry about a bunch of teens.
Prior’s devised a way to tie these threads together, but in the process, he asks too much of his lead actor. Alas, Dale fails to make James interesting. Without spoiling, the movie purposefully gives him little to work with, and the actor doesn’t exactly find ways to compensate. We’re left following a guy we don’t really care about down a rabbit-hole that’s confusing and unclear. Furthermore, the payoff waiting at the bottom doesn’t add much meaning to the two hours you’ve just seen. It also makes no sense.
So while The Empty Man is certainly too long, it’s also too short to make good on the the scope of its world and the ramifications of its ending. Prior’s ambition is admirable – if only the same could be said for his execution. As it stands, I can think of a lot of better ways to spend two-hours and sixteen minutes.
The Empty Man is now available on demand.