After watching the horror movie 'The Empty Man' (2020), I felt like an early adopter of cryptocurrency. Some people made a fortune off bitcoin, because they invested a long ago, while the rest of us were still trying to dumb down its proposition.
For me, 'The Empty Man' put me in the shoes of a bitcoin millionaire, at least in a rhetorical sense! I guess every person who has watched a cult film before it gains cult status feels this way.
Chris Stuckmann, a YouTuber famous for movie reviews, led me to believe 'The Empty Man deserves a cult following.' It's actually the title of the video where he unapologetically praised the movie. Halfway through his review, I paused and started watching the film. But I already knew the series of unfortunate events that destined 'The Empty Man' to box office failure. In the review, Stuckmann detailed the hardship, before and after the making of this film which infuriated me. Knowing what a criminally overlooked film 'The Empty Man' became due to the studio crisis itself is a story worth knowing.
'The Empty Man' is very loosely based on a namesake graphic novel. It was helmed by David Prior, a first time director who sharpened his art by directing some well-known DVD special features.
The film opens with a 25-minute extended prologue set in the Himalayas. Two couples go trekking in the mountains, then things go bad. A very long prologue that has little to do with the rest of the film until the ending.
It is beautifully shot, paced with solid Lovecraftian scares and will put any contemporary horror movie to shame. I have not seen such an intriguing set piece in horror films since 'The Thing.' Both films have snow-ridden settings and ambiguity. I was half expecting the prologue to be the premise of the film whereas it is just icing on the cake. So well made, it could be a separate horror movie of its own.
Post prologue, we meet our protagonist James Lasombra, an ex-cop, played by James Badge Dale. James Lasombra takes us through an investigation of a missing girl, whose disappearance is related to an urban legend. You blow a whistle on a bridge, The Empty Man, a cosmic being, will come for you. That is how the legend works. With a scary cult pulling strings behind the scene, James finds more and more cracks in his existence and the world around him.
The Empty Man clocks in at 137 minutes. This is where it stands out. Unlike an average three-act horror film, The Empty Man takes you on a labyrinthine ride, loaded with enough suspense to keep you glued to the screen. The pacing did not feel stretched despite the intimidating runtime.
It is difficult to articulate what really happens in the film without giving away too many details. Honestly, it is best enjoyed blind: do not watch the trailer, do not Google it and do not look for fan reactions on YouTube. Just watch it.
James Badge Dale delivers some great moments in the film with his acting, but writer/director David Prior is the real star of the film. Despite being marred by reshoots, budget cuts and creative differences with a producer, Prior kept his hopes up. For two years, the film was kept in a vault, consistently scarred by an uncertain release date.
Then came the Fox-Disney merger. Originally produced by 20th Century Fox, The Empty Man was literally dumped by Disney as they acquired it. Disney treated the film like an abandoned puppy. The company released a below par trailer a week before its release. People thought it was another teen slasher. As the pandemic ensued, cinemas were not allowed to show it for more than two days. Bingo. The Empty Man was unceremoniously buried.
But the internet never forgets. The Empty Man has surprised many horror aficionados through word of mouth. The following is only growing as I am writing. If you still want to know why we do not deserve films like The Empty Man, go listen to David Prior talk in the Nick Taylor podcast (episode #76).