“The Empty Man is a supernatural horror film based on a popular series of Boom! Studios graphic novels. After a group of teens from a small Midwestern town begin to mysteriously disappear, the locals believe it is the work of an urban legend known as The Empty Man. As a retired cop investigates and struggles to make sense of the stories, he discovers a secretive group and their attempts to summon a horrific, mystical entity, and soon his life—and the lives of those close to him—are in grave danger. Directed by David Prior from a screen story and screenplay by David Prior based on the graphic novel by Cullen Bunn, “The Empty Man” stars James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Stephen Root, Ron Canada, Robert Aramayo, Joel Courtney and Sasha Frolova” (20th Century Studios)
What is reality? What is beyond reality? What secrets are buried, waiting patiently to be unearthed by the unwary and spread across the world? The Empty Man is a film adaptation of a Boom! Studios horror graphic novel covering eldritch forces from their discovery, through to how they would seep out into the world as urban legends, beyond that to a whole lot more.
There are a lot of great film comparisons I could make which would be horrendous spoilers… So I won’t. Keeping it vague: if you like your horror surreal and dripping with cosmic horror elements, there’s a lot for you to like with The Empty Man. Onward instead with the Banshee team review!
The prop and set designs are really a highlight. From strange caves to dinghy cabins, the environments and objects that occupy them are all believable and effective. The film is sleek, with everything looking great, granting the viewer maximum immersion. It really helps some of the gruesome and horrific imagery hit home.
Oh, they put some effort in to this! It’s a very pretty film, almost universally bleak but doing it with style. There are frequent points where you can really tell this is based on a graphic novel! At regular intervals, you can see a panel has straight up been brought to life. No bad thing, it’s just something baked into the make up of The Empty Man that’ll stand out at times if you know to look for it. What really impressed me, though, was the sound design, especially the stunning use of silence. Silence here is wielded as a weapon, its absence the opening volley of an assault on the senses.
The cinematography was absolutely stunning with experimental camera angles, gorgeous colors, and excellent use of light and shadows. A lot of the film was visually disorienting on purpose to support a plot that grows ever more surreal by the minute. The music reached repeatedly crescendoed unnecessarily as, more often than not, nothing of consequence occurred, however the sound design for the foley was incredible. Sound is actually saying a lot in this film, and it took me a while to pick up on that fact, but once I did I was blown away with the expertise in its creation and use.
Big budgeted horror done well, the visuals are sharp and the sound design is not just well executed but inventive. The film looks and sounds great from start to finish. In addition, what practical effects are in use are stunning, the opening image of the Empty Man is an unsettling site to behold.
Story and Characters
The real standout is our protagonist, whose quirks and characterization is immediately established in a very “show, don’t tell” way that makes us sympathize and identify with him. However, other characters come off as unnecessary, poorly established, or oddly portrayed in a way that makes them feel inaccessible. I will say, though, that Amanda’s characterization comes off as badly done early on, but makes sense later on in the story. For that, I have to give props.
I had a bit of a problem with the characters here… I kind of hated them all, which really hurt my investment! The story itself is pretty damn strong but it can spoil the effect when you’re actively hoping everyone dies. I didn’t get everything I wanted out of the conclusion, but what it gave me instead was a competent frequently intriguing ride through a layered nightmare scenario.
I was very frustrated with the story of this film, especially since it has a bloated run time of 2 hours and 17 minutes. I don’t want to give anything away, but the whole film is built on a twist revealed at the very end. Up until that point, I felt the plot was all over the place, torqued and turned to fit through the hoops needed to get to the conclusion. Characters periodically don’t act like real people, especially one detective that is both terrible at his job and at monologuing about his job, and as the plot spirals out revealing that the influence of The Empty Man is greater than the viewer first understands, it becomes increasingly hard to believe that no one else is picking up on this except Lasombra. Most infuriatingly, the way the twist was engineered renders two thirds of the movie completely meaningless. I can see what they were trying to accomplish, but it was such a miss to me.
The characters are serviceable, so I will kind of brush over that. The narrative on the other hand, is wonderfully jarring in transitioning between opening mini horror film, to urban legend into full blown cosmic horror. I can see the argument how this keeps the film from having a strong sense of identity, but personally I was invested in every turn succumbing to the spiraling madness within.
What to Love
This film really transcends the tropey genre it occupies, giving thought and style to the often cliche boogeyman/creepypasta type of film. The intelligence behind the writing and the richness of the lore really gives a freshness to the rather familiar ground it treads. It endows a realness to its world that makes us care more about the horrors taking place.
Oh, definitely the Cosmic Horror. The opening sequence, and the second half of the run time, have a lot of interesting ideas. Even the first half which didn’t land so well with me had some stand out moments to enjoy. Yet, once it does clear the half way mark, it goes from a loosely connected sequence of things just kind of happening to a steady escalation of impending doom which was well worth sitting through the set up to get to.
James Badger Dale was incredible in this movie and I want to see more with him in the future. Other than that, the only other aspect I was smitten with is actually the scene pictured above. Without giving anything away, Lasombra (Dale) stumbles across a ritual in the woods while investigating and it is the creepiest and most memorable scene in the whole movie. Light versus darkness and sound versus silence are used to near perfection to make you question the sanity of the moment. I feel the whole film was worth watching just for this scene.
Everything? Can I go with everything? To me, this is a near perfect horror film the plot unravels in an enthralling fashion, the main concept is solid and the visual and audio design is near impeccable. To highlight the best the production has to offer, the exploration of the cult outpost in the middle of the woods is one of the best scenes I have seen in Hollywood horror in recent memory.
What Didn’t Work For Us
The editing leaves something to be desired. While I’m glad the story has a lengthy runtime to play itself out, the pacing has issues, particularly when taking into consideration the opening segment. Here, the back story takes up just too much time, delaying our journey proper, and I think it could have been rewritten or recut in a way that was more effective and gave more alacrity to the plot. At the rate it moves, it almost feels like it could have done better as a miniseries.
The Empty Man really felt fragmented to me. The opening was neat as its own thing, but ultimately irrelevant to the bigger picture. You could cut it and change maybe two lines without changing the overall story. You’re then left with two halves, an impressive second half and a pretty weird mishmash first. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some stand out individual scenes in that first half. They just don’t really gel together. They’re either a standalone designated scary moment, or else it’s set up that isn’t especially relevant later on.
I am always infuriated by horror movies that take a religious or cultural concept from another country or ethnic group and intentionally misinterpret and misrepresent it for cheap creeps. The tulpa and thoughts-made-manifest concepts in The Empty Man are actually taken from occultist movements and Spiritualism of the turn of the century, and though these are based on Buddhist theories, the film seemingly portrays the entity and the concepts as Bhutanese/Tibetan because… spooky? My English student self wants to decry “colonizing Orientalism!” It would have been more interesting to link it to the Spiritualist movement in the US as opposed to the hikers in Bhutan, giving a historical context for the Pontifex cult’s activities and an explanation as to how they flourished in the US. The Empty Man himself (since he is referred to as a “he” repeatedly) is overwhelmingly disappointing as well. He is spooky in the prelude, but as the film continues he is relegated to cheap jump scares. Later in the film when we finally get a somewhat decent look at him, it is with the most nauseating jerky-cam effects and seizure-inducing lighting. I would say the concept of mass hysteria explored in the film is more frightening than the supernatural entity of The Empty Man.
There is a reliance on CGI I did not really care for, particularly when it came to the ‘Empty Man’. The opening image of him in a cave is rather stunning and I was hopeful they would utilize that creation a bit more. I am also a bit split on the ending as what I envisioned and hoped would happen did not come to fruition.
Overall Scare Factor
For a seasoned horror viewer such as myself, it takes a lot to scare me. But there’s a lot to be unnerved by in this film. It tends to tread on the grounds of more “messed-up” or “unsettling” rather than terrifying, but it really gets under your skin with its brutality and occult elements. The striking visuals and direction really make you feel present, and I had more than one moment of panic for the protagonist.
I mentioned above I didn’t quite get what I wanted from this, but the frustration it left me with added to the impact of the finale. I really can’t expand on that point without spoiling what’s a very interesting series of events to discover for yourself! Even if it doesn’t quite land for you, like it didn’t for me, there’s more than enough to be worth working through it still. Cool scenes punctuate the drag when it’s faffing around, then a solid story once it’s found its way. On balance it’s definitely worth the watch.
Meh. Besides one aforementioned phenomenal scene, I will likely forget about it entirely within the year.
This is a bit difficult for me to pin down. The narrative does work best as a sort of metaphysical and abstract horror piece – more to wonderment than abject horror. However, there are a few sequences that really crawled under my skin and shook me up. Is The Empty Man overly scary? No, but it is an amazing horror film that fans of cosmic horror should enjoy.
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