"I'll just get my gear."

The Empty Man (plus AM1200)

THE EMPTY MAN is an interesting horror movie that’s on VOD right now. Turns out it’s based on a comic book from Boom! Studios, but I was not aware of that when I saw it. I just knew it was getting some word-of-mouth as a good horror movie that had not gotten its due upon its release in October. After further research I learned that after it got dumped by the studio (with a misleading trailer dropping one week before release) and completely flopped it got bad reviews and a D+ Cinemascore. Luckily I was listening to the right people.

If you’re game, I suggest doing a trust exercise here and just watching it without reading what it’s about. I liked seeing it unfold knowing nothing at all. But for those of you who can’t do that, I’ll get more specific. It opens in Bhutan in 1995, where four American friends are on a hiking trip. You know – all excited to visit a foreign land, waving at passing monks and shit. They get to the top and it’s beautiful and amazing and then Paul (Aaron Poole, THE SAMARITAN) is all, “Do you hear that?,” walks toward a ledge and slips right into a crevice. Just drops right in like it was an open manhole.

Greg (Evan Jonigkeit, Toad from X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST) immediately goes into action, gearing up to rappel down and get him, assuring Fiona (Jessica Matten, ROBOT LOVE) and Ruthie (Virginia Kull) that he’ll be all right. When he gets down there it’s a big cave and he finds Paul not dead, not smashed up, but sitting in front of a sort of shrine with a weirdly posed (and huge?) human skeleton, mumbling in tongues or some shit. Not responding to him at all, then whispering a threat.

They get him out of there, but he’s catatonic. Greg is forced to carry him. A snow storm is growing and there’s just no fucking way they can get back down the mountain with him. They find a remote cabin with no one home, take shelter inside, try to nurse Paul back to health, sit out the storm and argue about what to do. There’s some hallucinations and/or possession and some creepy ass shit where Ruthie goes outside and can kind of see a strange figure running at her in the snow.

So we have a survival story that mixes the “vacationing Americans discover exotic evil” of MIDSOMMAR, etc. with the “group of friends in a cabin while mysterious supernatural shit happens” of THE EVIL DEAD. And maybe a little Goldilocks and the Three Bears, since I kept dreading the owner showing up and nobody being able to communicate with them. Except… that’s all before the title. I was glad I didn’t know that because there’s a very effective shock that told me, “Well Vern, now that you have settled in for this ‘90s Bhutan cabin movie, let’s flip to an entirely different scenario in 2018 Missouri.”

Now the movie stars James Badge Dale (THE LONE RANGER) in the very James Badge Dale role of a weathered, world weary disgraced former cop who’s always smoking, drinking, tired, often bleeding from his nose, but very likable because he’s always caring. His name is James Lasombra, his wife is dead, he lives alone. His life is miserable enough that a family friend, a teenage girl named Amanda (Sasha Frolova, KINDRED SPIRITS) comes to check on him. She says some odd things and the next thing you know he hears from her mom, Nora (Marin Ireland, HELL OR HIGH WATER) that she’s disappeared. Just like Greg up there on the mountain, he assures her “Everything’s gonna be fine,” and you’re not totally sure he believes that, and even less sure he’s right.

So this is the unusual thing about THE EMPTY MAN: it’s as much a noir as a horror movie. It’s a mystery, a detective story. In that sense it’s a little like LORD OF ILLUSIONS. As in a standard issue horror movie there are teenage victims, and a CANDYMAN/Bloody Mary/Slender Man type urban legend about the “Empty Man” who they say comes to get you three days after you blow into an empty bottle on a bridge. But it’s not through the perspective of the kids – it’s the guy who tries to piece together what the fuck is happening with them. Like if the main character in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET was John Saxon.

So he goes to the school and talks to Amanda’s friends, starting with Davara (Samantha Logan, POLAROID), who tells him about Amanda getting everybody to do that bottle/bridge/Empty Man shit. It gets some mileage from the discomfort of this adult man talking to teens on unofficial detective business as the real cops whisper about whatever it is he’s infamous for. And things look bad as the kids start turning up dead (though it looks like suicide).

Like a more sensible and focused MY SOUL TO TAKE, THE EMPTY MAN offers a Cheesecake Factory sized menu of horror tropes: Weird clicky whispering, subliminal blips, a glitchy VHS tape, a sudden loud phone ring and strange voice on the line, a catch phrase written on the wall in blood, an abandoned summer camp, a teddy bear that seems to just barely move in the background. We get the snow storm and the cave skeleton, plus a chase through the woods at night, a lightning storm, and chanting robed cultists around a bonfire.

I love that it offers all that but also as Lasombra digs deeper into the mystery it gets into less horror-specific weirdness. Our 3-day J-horror type curse somehow leads to a Scientology-esque cult called The Pontifex Institute (led by Stephen Root, EXTREME JUSTICE) that Lasombra describes as “Some sort of self important oneness hippie bullshit.” He goes in basically undercover, asking questions like he’s going to join up, using the old detective trick of endearing himself to potentially hostile people by making bad jokes like some random jackass. I like how he zeroes in on a random guy in the lobby (Robert Aramayo, THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK) because his rebel without a cause style seems to annoy him (he calls him “Neal Cassady”).

Eventually all these threads tie together, and like many weird mysteries the answers about what’s been going on can’t help but be slightly disappointing. It’s a suitably crazy solution and would make a second viewing very different, for better or worse, but to me what you feel when the pieces all fit together is rarely as potent as what you feel when you have no idea. And Dale as Lasombra is a perfect guide through that feeling, occasionally piercing the gloomy atmosphere of the thing with his dry reactions to the escalating craziness he encounters.

From the sounds of it, the comic book is very different. According to the official description, “the so-called Empty Man disease” that “causes insanity and violence” has become a pandemic, and it’s about one family trying to keep their infected daughter out of the government quarantines, from which no one ever returns. I guess that’s kind of what happened to this movie too. But I’m glad I saw it on VOD, and I’m sure it will hit one of the streaming services and discs sooner or later if you don’t take that leap yourself.

The writer/director is David Prior, but not the one that did KILLER WORKOUT and DEADLY PREY. A new one. This is one that did making-of documentaries for BAD BOYS II and and BLADE II and some of David Fincher’s movies, and it turns out he’s the guy who did a 2008 short called AM1200 that I’ve always heard was good.

So I finally checked it out. I was able to rent it on a DVD, which has director commentary, an alternate ending, and other stuff, but you can also find it on Youtube and Vimeo. It’s 40 minutes long and yes, it does seem like the same director as THE EMPTY MAN. Similar mood and pacing, similar spiral from the real world into weirdness. And it’s got the ol’ encounters with ancient supernatural forces that cause people to behave bizarrely. I like it.

Eric Lange (WIND RIVER, Narcos) stars as Sam, some sort of mild-mannered white collar dude who seems to be in crisis. It starts on a sunny day as he leaves his apartment, chaotic sounds of helicopters and traffic outside; he drives across highways into the middle of nowhere, and then into the dark, quiet woods, where he finds something evil and otherworldly. So it’s a journey.

Early in his travels a cop car pulls up behind him, and he keeps nervously watching it in his rear view mirror, as anyone would. But after the cop does a u-turn to chase somebody else he pulls over to puke.

So what did this guy do? Some kind of embezzlement, we learn in flashback. A scam he seems like he never would’ve considered until a drunk and bitter co-worker (Ray Wise, SWAMP THING) suggested it to him at a retirement party. Now that guy is dead of suicide. Time to head out of town.

After what must be many hours of driving, Sam has a hard time staying awake, so he keeps trying to find something on the radio to keep his attention. Nothing is coming in very well. When he hits the titular station he faintly hears a scared voice pleading for medical help.

This is kind of like an episode of The Twilight Zone, or maybe some other horror anthology. It’s a simple idea with a man on the run getting sidetracked by an eerie mystery that escalates in strangeness and distance from everyday reality. But it’s very cinematic. It’s all about the foreboding atmosphere, the gradual descent into nightmare, the flares from the headlights and flashlight beams hitting an anamorphic lens.

THE EMPTY MAN is longer than most horror movies at 2 hours and 17 minutes. I think the pacing works perfect – I never found it boring, but it’s definitely never rushed. You get time to anticipate and contemplate the horrors. AM1200 is similar. I think the story could easily fit into 22 minutes, but it would just be a quick little tale from the crypt. I think the wide-eyed awe Prior treats it with is very effective.

Apparently it took him several years to make it. He says on the commentary that he started previz while working on the BLADE II DVD, and completed the film while he was finishing up the ZODIAC DVD. (This pattern would continue; THE EMPTY MAN started filming in 2016 and was released in 2020.)

He swears he’s not as meticulous as David Fincher, but he seems to do alot of planning. The DVD includes an animatic of the entire movie, and it’s not only the crude computer animation of camera moves and blocking – he also had the sound design and score all ready to go. I guess it makes sense that a guy who’s always documenting how other people’s movies are made would spend a long time plotting exactly how to do his. Especially since he’d been doing Fincher’s DVD extras since FIGHT CLUB.

The most Finchery/show-offy shot is a really cool one that twist-zooms into a map on Sam’s apartment wall and slowly match-dissolves into a God’s eye view of his car on the highway. Then it slowly moves closer until it goes through the sunroof and shows him inside. I figured it couldn’t have been a drone shot at that time but I really didn’t know until I listened to the commentary that it was an entirely CG shot. He says he tried a radio controlled helicopter, but the big ass lens threw it off balance.

Here’s some weird trivia: he was able to borrow some body part props from Tom Woodruff and Alec Gillis because he’d played an alien in ALIEN: RESURRECTION. You know, just one of those jobs people get. So, you don’t see it clearly but there’s a dead body in the movie that’s actually a dummy of Jake Gyllenhaal from BUBBLE BOY.

According to the official websight, “a feature length adaptation of AM1200 is in the works. A screenplay has been written and some previsualization has been done. Financing is next.” I guess that didn’t work out. I’d rather see him doing new stuff like THE EMPTY MAN anyway, but it’s sad that there was a 12 year gap there. For God’s sake somebody give this man money to do another movie now.

P.S. IMPLIED SPOILER FOR BOTH THIS MOVIE AND AN UNNAMED OTHER MOVIE: If you watch this, after you find out what’s going on, see if you agree with me that it has quite a bit in common with a particular DTV-ish action sequel that is highly revered around here. Didn’t expect that.

Further reading:

“The kinds of movies we were all referencing were either movies that were ambiguous or took some time to find an audience and that weren’t four quadrant movies that jumped out of the gate and made $100 million [in the] opening weekend. We knew we weren’t making that movie and nobody wanted to make that movie. But it turns out, the people who inherited the movie wanted that kind of movie.”

This entry was posted on Thursday, May 13th, 2021 at 11:22 am and is filed under Horror, Mystery, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “The Empty Man (plus AM1200)”

  1. Haven’t seen the short film, but I’ll co-sign EMPTY MAN.

    An excellent and appropriately weird review for a good-if-not-excellent and weird film that is well-worth watching. Definitely a “don’t make ’em like this anymore” type film that feels like it could’ve been filmed in 1999 and sat in distribution hell for 20 years (complete with weird Stephen Root cameo and all the other tropes Vern mentions). Apparently, they do still make ’em like this every now and then anymore, I guess, so, y’all should jump on board and watch this while it’s still the hip, underground-ish thing. (Come on, don’t be a poser, narc, or square, etc.).

    Anyway, in addition to all Vern’s observations and connections, this reminded me a little bit of MEMENTO and that weird-ass Katie Holmes movie ABANDON, and maybe even SILENT HILL a little — which only underscores my previous point (and/or the fact that I seem to be stuck in that time period). And, yes, Vern’s p.s. is on point, as well.

    As much as I’ve defended the constitutional rights of the A24 slow-burn-core shit, that whole steez is starting to try my patience. This one is bleak and weird, but it’s more studio-y, less bleak just for the f of it, and more distinctive and gutsy weird vs. up its own arty ass werid (looking at you, THE DARK AND THE WICKED, THE WIND, etc.).

  2. This movie looked like one of those “low budget-ish but trying SO hard to be moody and artistic and it’s kinda dull,” but when I found out the dude who made Am1200 made it, I put it on my list…been so busy that I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, but I somehow stumbled upon that short film awhile back and thought it was pretty fantastic.

    Skani hits it right with the A24 reference. It’s like when Get Out and It arrived in the same year it was like “oh someone remembered that horror movies can also be a good time and have jokes in them and not be so damn ponderous.

  3. I loved this one. The 20 minute prologue is an all-timer. It could function perfectly as a self contained ambiguous short film. That distant figure in the snow legitimately gave me goosebumps. The ending does leave one slightly dissatisfied, but holy hell is it an engrossing and creepy journey on its way there. And could we please get more leads in horror movies played by adults over 40? JBD is terrific in this.

  4. “And could we please get more leads in horror movies played by adults over 40?”

    One of the few things that I appreciate about THIRTHIRTEENEN GHOSTS: It’s a Tony Shaloub movie! Sure, you also get Shannon Elizabeth and Matthew Lillard, but they are only in supporting roles. It’s a horror movie, aimed at a teen audience, starring an average looking character actor (a few years before his big TV breakthrough) in his late 40s, playing a father. No matter how bad the rest of the movie is, you can’t take that away from it!

  5. That was always something I enjoyed about the SAWseseses as well, even though I was still a teenager when the first few were released.

  6. This one is impressive in that nearly everything that happens in it is a pretty shopworn horror staple, but the filmmaking is so strong that they end up feeling fresh and vivid anyway (especially since they’re combined in some surprising ways). It’s just uncommonly well-made; the atmosphere, performances, pace, framing… all just seem exactly right. It’s deliberate, but not slow, ambitious, but not pretentious (it’s not one of those modern horror movies which gets to the horror stuff only grudgingly after a bunch of mopey family drama).

    Unfortunately the ending does kind of suck, and retroactively removes a lot of goodwill I had for the tight plotting leading up to it. But you can’t have everything.

    Plus, as Dustin says, it’s kinda nice to see genuine middle-aged adults dealing with distinctly middle-aged adult problems that inform who they are without defining them entirely.

  7. Mr. S: I keep getting intrigued by this one but then I look at that running time and I balk. Your compatriot Dan Prestwich advised me not to waste my time. Knowing what you know about me, would you agree with that assessment?

  8. Watched it last night…liked it a LOT…until dat ending. WOOF. The worst kind of ending right outside of “it was all a dream.” I really liked the detective stuff, there was actually fairly little horror but it didn’t feel like they were trying to be ponderous about it. In the end though, the ending dragged it from “great movie I’d recommend,” to not.

  9. Dammit, now I really want A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET the John Saxon cut.

  10. Majestyk: I would say “no” but it depends on what type of horror/crime movie you like. I respect Vern’s opinion and certainly agree it’s shot well. My problem is that – like a Stephen King novel – you’ve got about one-third of great stuff, one-third exposition, and then one-third of unnecessary fluff. If you like King and “The Walking Dead,” go for it. If not, there’s always something like “Fried Barry” out there.

  11. I thought the ending worked pretty well, both in the sense that I couldn’t find any obvious cheat to it, and in the sense that it returns back to the main central theme of identity and how your ability to make sense of mysterious and ambiguous new information is only as good as your willingness to hold your prior assumptions loosely. The ending works on its own terms and seems suitable to the kind of cosmic horror vibe that the film is going for. It doesn’t give you Shyamalan-type closure, but it has more of that David Lynch effect of turning the whole movie into a bit of a mobius strip.

  12. SaragossaManuscript

    May 15th, 2021 at 2:01 am

    I took the trust fall and went in blind at 2am to watch this by myself in the dark and I’m glad that I did. I’m a poor judge of indulgent runtimes so couldn’t say if it needed trimming at all. I was content with the serving size, and thought the ending worked well. I for sure can’t think of any way a happy ending could be earned given the increasingly grim events preceding it.

    I especially liked the Neal Cassady reference because so much of the mind virus talk brought to mind William Burroughs.

    Had a moment of joy watching it when dude goes to the Pontifex Institute for the first time and the speaker is introduced from afar. I thought to myself, “Damn wouldn’t it be awesome to have Stephen Root in this part?” Well speak of the devil. I’m not sure why I felt it so unlikely to see him in the first place, but was happy to be pleasantly surprised nonetheless.

  13. Pausing on the intake questions a lot of them are really fun and cute and a lot of them… seem kind of like the bait you’d use to troll trans people on Twitter

    I thought this largely didn’t live up to the hype but I appreciated that the movie’s one joke was very funny

  14. Mr M — I think you can skip it. I don’t think you’d hate it or anything but the idea of a normal horror movie but slowed down by 25% with better atmosphere and acting than usual… doesn’t really sound like your bag. You might find the way it mixes up different cliches kind of interesting, and you do get a good Stephen Root cameo, but I can’t imagine you getting too psyched about it, especially since it’s so long. Not enough to actively seek it out, anyway.

  15. Haven’t heard of this one but I’ll have to check it out at least, because I love AM1200, been telling anyone who’ll listen about it for years. I may have even told this story here before, but it’s part of one of my favorite *Movie Memories*. I used to live right next door to this tiny little non-profit theater in Seattle called the Grand Illusion. Great place, very low-budget. Everyone who works there is a volunteer, so they’ll show an absolutely massive variety of stuff- saw YOJIMBO there for the first time, saw TURKISH STAR WARS there for the first time- really something for everyone.

    Anyway, one year they did a two-night H.P. Lovecraft film festival. I was working the first night so only got to go to the second, which was dedicated to shorts. Because it’s the kind of place it is, you’re can bring in your own beer or whatever and so the whole crowd (it’s not a huge room, *maybe* 50 seats) had a pretty good buzz on. The first several films were all pretty bad-to-mediocre and the mood was rowdy, but then the last film came on. It was AM1200 and the room hushed instantly, because it was immediately obvious that this was on another level from what had come before. I’ve never seen a crowd switch so instantly and totally from boozy raucousness to nervous silence before or after. Absolutely killer way to end the night. I love that it’s not actually based on a Lovecraft story, it just kind of gets the vibe that people respond to.

  16. Wait a minute… did you live in the apartments above Valley of the Roses, a.k.a. Bruce Lee’s first school?

  17. Vern- haha yes, that is exactly where I was! Number 104 I think, though that was quite a while ago now. I only found out about the Bruce Lee connection as I was moving in to the place and then proceeded to brag to basically everyone I met about it for the next three years I lived there. The little shop the landlady’s daughter ran on the street-facing side always had Bruce knick-knacks and stuff.

  18. I think movies like this are a waste of time, but this glowing review (especially the line about how it’s as much a noir detective story as a horror movie) and some of the comments convinced me to give it a try… and it turns out I should have trusted my first instinct, this was a waste of time. This horror genre of ‘weird and creepy stuff happens for two hours and then there’s an ambiguous ending’ is just not for me.

    I can’t argue that it was well made or executed, but what they were trying to make and execute is very boring to me. Just an unceasing succession of creepy tropes, one after another, then a twist ending that pulls the ‘none of this was real and nothing you did mattered’ card. Ugh.

    And why did the ending make a dramatic big show of reenacting the events of the affair and the car crash? The audience would have pieced together what happened by that point, so they weren’t revealing anything new, and that stuff didn’t even happen anyway. Why was that treated like a big revelation?

  19. So I have a friend I watch these kinds of normal
    people spookablast horror movies with, so we watched this one, despite what turned out to be some very sound advice not to. And what a shocker, it sucked. I need to learn to trust my goddamn instincts. It starts fine for the first, oh, 90 minutes or so but this running time is death to any kind of engagement with this pretentious assemblage of half-speed cliches. There’s a watchable 100-minute movie hidden somewhere in this morass of generic flashbacks, elliptical editing, and repetitive metaphysical gibberish but this ain’t it. I was pretty much begging for it to end for the entire last 45 minutes. Rarely has a movie taken so long to accomplish so little.

  20. I’m sorry you had to go through it, Mr. M. But you’re right. I’d rather have my melons shot up by some gangsters.

  21. Eh, it was painless until the fucking endless third act. Modern filmmakers ignore the hard-won lessons of pacing at their peril. There’s no easier way to transform a bunch of quality ingredients into a bowl of inedible slop than to assume more of a good thing is always better.

  22. Thanks for the review, Vern. The criminally underused James Badge Dale makes it almost an instant watch but your recommendation put it over the top.

    I can see why people didn’t like the ending but I loved it. This felt of a piece with the original Wicker Man or Midsommar where the protagonist trying to solve a mystery finds out they ARE the mystery…or something like that. The slow burn intensity of it, the great creepy opening scene (that went on so long I wondered if I picked some similarly named non James Badge Dale movie) and anything involving Candyman-like folklore are manna to me Stephen Root and secret cults are liked icing on that manna, if I can mix a metaphor.

    Yeah I’m down to see more from this director and will check it that short film for sure.

  23. I took Vern’s recommendation, stopped reading this review in the second paragraph, and finally got around to watching this (and therefore reading the review). Like a Lovecraftian version of Zodiac, with dashes of Candyman and Wicker Man. I loved the overly long prologue, didn’t so much love the ending. But I would definitely watch more from this director.

  24. Ok I just got around to watching EMPTY MAN and it’s a new favorite haha. It puts me a little in mind of IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, in a way. I even love the weird ending revelations. This shit is extremely my shit.

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