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.
- The David Fincher fansight Fincher Fanatic did an interview with Prior about producing DVDs, and he talks briefly about AM1200.
- More recently Thrillist did a really good interview with the director about the troubled production and release of THE EMPTY MAN.
“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.”