Truth be told, I wasn’t going to do a full review of “The Empty Man.” Especially considering that it’s almost 2 years old, only available to stream, and is leaving HBO Max at the end of the month. So the window for anyone to check it out is small, and the chatter around the film is, well, non-existent. At the recommendation of some of my peers though, I decided to fire it up late last night and was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable it. Enjoyable enough in fact, that having woken up before the sun on a Saturday morning for no logical reason I’ve decided to give “The Empty Man” the courtesy of a full review. Plus, it’s a nice little psychological horror flick to start your spooky season. While the genre has had an incredible year with a number of great offerings, “The Empty Man” doesn’t necessarily reach the heights of say, “Pearl” or “X.” But it does give you that good old thrilling feeling when you watch good old fashioned horror movies, with a bit of high minded ambition to boot.
Based on the graphic novel series by Cullen Bunn of the same name, “The Empty Man” is written and directed by David Pryor making his feature film debut. It tells the story of ex-cop James (James Badge Dale) in a small town reeling for the death of his wife and son a year ago. When his neighbor’s daughter Amanda (Sasha Frovola) goes missing, he decides to help her mother Lori (Marin Ireland) investigate the mysterious circumstances that leads him to uncovering something far more sinister afoot, something that may even be supernatural. Cults, hallucinations, and chilling tales of The Empty Man, the body count continues to rise as his world unravels trying to find this missing girl.
It’s ok if you’ve never heard of “The Empty Man.” It was set for a theatrical release back in 2019, but was panned by test audiences and buried, and even more so when the pandemic hit and essentially locked it away in a vault never to be seen again. But it found some resurgence online, and found a cult following as well as some far more positive critical reviews. The other folly for “The Empty Man” is in its title. Not that that it’s bad, just that is sends the wrong message, and is easily roped into with the likes of things like “The Slender Man” and “The Bye Bye Man,” among others. Roped into this group, you can see why 20th Century Studios was quick to distance themself from it. Though some of the mythos does fall in line with the some of the more hokey elements of internet tales, “The Empty Man” is far more ambitious and high minded than its title and counterparts would suggest. It suffers a bit from over bloating, and doesn’t quite connect all the dots in its overly long, 2 hour and 10 minute run time. That’s a very long run time for any horror film, even great ones, and there’s quite a bit of fat that could be trimmed here to make the actual film match its ambitious scope. “The Empty Man” throws a lot of punches and not all of them land, but the ones that do deliver a one, two knockout combo.
There are a lot of things happening in “The Empty Man,” from its 20 minute cold open that could be short film unto itself, to it’s teenage tell tales of bridges and tulpas that feel ripped straight from “The Ring,” to its unsettling and mind-bending cult aspects, there’s a little something for everyone here. Again, it doesn’t all come together in one cohesive narrative, nor is it nearly as clever as it thinks it is. But there’s a ton of potential not far beneath it’s surface to be a truly memorable thriller, one that picks up tremendous steam as it goes along. “The Empty Man” gets better the longer it unravels and the further it gets into some of its stronger plot points, namely the cult and their strange beliefs of mind and body and reality. It’s here where things start be less like “The Slender Man” and more like “Hereditary,” and I mean that as the highest complement one can give to a horror film.
There’s a lot borrowing and hodge-podging going on, but “The Empty Man” manages to be better than the sum of its parts, and despite taking some missteps along the way it absolutely sticks the landing. It is rather odd to have a horror film that has a stronger third act than it’s first, with most of these beginning with a strong premise that ultimately dissipates by the time it wraps. “The Empty Man” is the reverse, taking stabs at a whole bunch of premises and then slowly zeroing in on its strongest one by its conclusion. Make no mistake, shit gets really weird really fast, and if you’re not tuned into the frequency the film is transmitting, it’s probably not going to sit well with you. But that’s just the kind of high minded ambition “The Empty Man” gets by the time in concludes, and if you ARE on board then it rewards you for your time.
If you’re in the mood for something familiar but also off the beaten path, I recommend “The Empty Man.” And I recommend it quickly, because it is set to leave streaming at the end of September.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“The Empty Man” is currently streaming on HBO MAX until September 30th. You can watch the trailer below.