The Empty Man

The Empty Man ★★★½

One night while attending the local drive-in earlier this year, I found my eyes drifting over to an adjacent screen showing something totally unfamiliar to me. It wasn't the usual display of "Tom & Jerry" or Robert De Niro slumming it in some grandpa-centric kids movie. It looked like something about mountain climbers. Looked sort of ominous and then suddenly there was James Badge Dale. That guy hasn't headlined a movie in years. What the hell was playing over on screen 3? It took some detective work when I got home to discover something called THE EMPTY MAN, a shelved movie that had gotten lost in the 20th Century Fox acquisition. Not many people were talking about it at the time, but in the months since its release it had developed something of a cult following. Now having finally caught up with it outside of my car, it's definitely a refreshing chiller that bucks a lot of the overly familiar Blumhouse trends.

The film starts with a 20 minute cold open on a snowy mountaintop. Four hikers get stranded there after one of them begins to exhibit strange behavior as if controlled by some unseen force. The tension builds, with some truly frightening moments as it becomes clear that these kids took a bite out of the wrong York Peppermint Patty. The sequence ends and the setting changes to a small suburban town. So wait. What was with those hikers? Who were they? And what exactly happened to them and why? Were we going to find out? Because it all feels pretty far removed from the next portion of the story. This sequence ended up being the highlight of the film and it was so nice to be watching something that wasn't in a rush to explain every loose thread to me. No doubt there were some Disney executives arguing during the film's stay in limbo that maybe that lengthy standalone sequence should just be cut to give viewers a nice pat running time that won't stretch past the 2 hour mark, but it was definitely worth fighting to keep this opening in tact.

The main body of the film begins with James Badge Dale investigating the disappearance of a teen girl he was close with. After some questioning among her classmates, it seems that she vanished shortly after engaging in a little spook session with her friends in which she pretended to summon our titular ghoul. Looks like we have a boogeyman on our hands here. But this is (mostly) not your standard slasher in which a hooded figure leaps out from behind blind corners to give its protagonist and audience a jolt. This is more akin to mystery structure of a film like "The Ring" or "Candyman," with the film being far more interested in what this being is and why he might be in the market for souls, rather than just an excuse to pile up bodies.

Sadly, as is so often the case with these films, the more you find out about the origins of this mysterious figure, much of his power and scare factor fades away. There's some very memorable moments throughout the film, particularly a discovery in the woods that feels right out of "The Wicker Man," but nothing ever comes close to topping that opening sequence. With all the intrigue that the mystery builds to, it all unfortunately ends with a character verbally spelling out every connection that the less intelligent audience members weren't able to piece together themselves. Perhaps the movie needed this explicit exposition to bring it all home, but it's the first time the film felt like a conventional horror movie, even if the explanation was illuminating and overall satisfying. My biggest complaint about the end was that it wasn't delivered by an actress who I'm fond of who had absolutely nothing to do in the rest of the film. I was confident that she was in this movie for a reason and would get a chance to have her big moment by the end, but in this case I don't even think it qualified as a red herring. She was just poorly utilized.

I can't be too critical of this film though, because it does an exceptionally fine job with tropes that most films in its genre sleepwalks through. If it doesn't completely pull it off, well that's a minor quibble. This is very much the kind of horror film I want people to try to make, as opposed to getting ground up in the Blumhouse machine. I can only hope that Nia DaCosta's upcoming "Candyman" remake is able to focus on mythology as well as this does, without reducing itself to a series of jump scares. It's always refreshing when a horror figure's mythology boils down to more than just a nun realizing she looks kind of scary so she decides to devote all of her time to jumping out of closets. It's very nice that the kinds of horror fans I tend to associate with have really embraced THE EMPTY MAN, as it deserves some attention that won't simply result in a parade of sequels. This is what I'd like the future of mainstream horror to be. Now if only Jason Blum could give me some sort of magic wishing stone or monkey's paw to make that declaration to.

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