Produced by 20th Century Fox, then bought out by Disney and lost in the COVID-19 pandemic is The Empty Man, a visually striking blend of missing-person thriller and folk horror. At one point this film was set for an Australian theatrical release. Instead it crept onto home video last week without much fanfare. While imperfect, it is a film that deserves more exposure that it is getting: not a must-see by any stretch, but certainly an entertaining diversion.
Former police detective James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) takes it upon himself to investigate the disappearance of local teenager Amanda Quail (Sasha Frolova). The police assume she has run away from home. James learns of a local urban myth – the “empty man” that visits anyone who dares summon him. Drawn to a strange religious cult operating in the town, James soon finds himself at the centre of something dangerous and supernatural growing within the community.
The Empty Man comes from first-time feature director David Prior. His career to date has been dominated by making “making-of” and behind-the-scenes documentaries for home video. He has worked in particular for director David Fincher (Zodiac, Gone Girl), and the latter director’s influence is palpably felt in much of The Empty Man‘s tone, aesthetic, and cinematography (undertaken by Anastos N. Michos). If nothing else this is a beautifully moody and haunted film with an excellent visual texture. The story is drawn from the comic book miniseries of the same name, written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Vanesa R. Del Rey. Prior has adapted it for the screen. The film looks and sounds great, and is cast well with a strong central performance by James Badge Dale. Moment to moment, it is also well written with solid dialogue and character work. Where The Empty Man stumbles is in its plot structure, and in the plot itself.
For one thing, the film opens with a colossal 22-minute prologue: long enough that, as a viewer, one gets so invested in the initial characters that it is a jarring moment to suddenly see the title pop onscreen nearly half an hour into the movie. Once settled into its primary setting and characters, the film often feels glacially slow. Anyone familiar with the tropes and beats of folk horror will be anticipating every twist and turn well before they occur. The film runs for 137 minutes in total, and it desperately needs to be around 15 minutes shorter.
That leads on to the other plot problem: in the end The Empty Man is too derivative to fully work. For horror and thriller fans, you could write down a list of older, better films and tick them off one by one as The Empty Man references them. A bit of Zodiac here, a bit of The Ring there, and touches of The Wicker Man, Kill List, Videodrome, and others. The result is something rather stylish and enjoyable, but also like a folk horror milkshake. It is well worth checking out, but possibly with measured expectations.