Movie Review – Empty Man, The

Principal Cast : James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Sasha Frolova, Robert Aramayo, Samantha Logan, Aaron Poole, Stephen Root, Ron Canada, Joel Courtney, Evan Jonigkeit, Virginia Kull, Jessica Matten, Phoebe Nicholls, Owen Teague.
Synopsis: On the trail of a missing girl, an ex-cop comes across a secretive group attempting to summon a terrifying supernatural entity.

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One part supernatural thriller, another part crime procedural mixed with ever-present sense of loss and grief, David Prior’s atmospheric horror entry The Empty Man is a curiously written, effectively directed, sour-tasting work. Few would argue that Prior’s long-time affiliation with David Fincher has rubbed off on him, considering this film’s exceptionally Fincher-esqe style and tone, but in standing on his own as director the man’s craftsmanship and ability to generate tension – a highly valued commodity in the horror genre – is first rate. Unfortunately, The Empty Man is an at-times suffocatingly tough watch, almost aggressively dour to the point you feel like offing yourself immediately after watching it, and for sure it could have done with a good twenty or thirty minutes shaved off its heavily paced running time, but the effects of post-production rushes and studio meddling meant this cult-classic genre entry is intriguing without being great.

James Badge Dale plays retired detective James Lasombra, who is still grieving the loss of his wife and son only a year earlier. He attempts to help his neighbour, the also recently bereaved Nora Quail (Marin Ireland) when her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) goes missing, only to uncover the young woman’s involvement in a mysterious cult that seems intent on communicating with a powerful supernatural entity. Unravelling the clues to Amanda’s whereabouts, Lasombra learns that several of her classmates have also gone missing or met with foul play, linked to the secretive Pontifex Institute run by Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root) and who seem to be hiding a dangerous secret.

With a bananas twenty minute cold open, The Empty Man is saturated in an atmosphere of perpetual gloom, an oppressive tonality that makes rooting for any of the people within this¬† movie quite difficult. The film is based on a graphic novel published by Boom! Studios (who also have a vanity card front-ending this film), with an adapted screenplay by the director. Prior was saddled with a deal of studio interference in The Empty Man’s release, following poor audience test scores, leading to the eventual release of a horror film clocking in at well over two hours, and bulging with scenes that, sadly, add nothing to the overall story. It’s annoying, really, because there’s a terrifically scary, atmospheric thriller buried in here, with shades of Fincher’s Se7en, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, and Christophe Gans’ Brotherhood Of The Wolf lurking beneath the surface, and in most respects Prior’s ability to generate tension is really quite good.

Where I found problems with the film was in its depressing tone and dour, unrelentingly oppressive narrative. I don’t mind this kind of thing generally, but it needs to be counterbalanced with some kind of hopefulness, some sort of escape from the doom and gloom at play with the film’s central monster lurking in every shadow. The Empty Man offers naught in terms of hope, nothing to give the viewer any kind of escape from the drab monotony of evil, and as such results in a film that’s difficult to “enjoy” in the general sense; mood and tone work to send shivers up the spine of anyone entering into The Empty Man’s premise but cloying grief and mystery alone are exhausting if there isn’t anything to root for. And James Badge Dale’s Lasombra isn’t a character I could relate to – he’s a man beset by some rigid sadness of a past we’re given glimpses of, and working through this sadness is tough to endure for two hours and change, but to also watch him try to decipher the supernatural shenanigans of the plot’s central mystery becomes tiresome the longer it goes.

Eminently stylish but far too long and unsatisfying with its confusing climax, The Empty Man is a horror film in search of a point. Moody beyond belief, the film’s grim aesthetic and dehumanising sadness makes for tough viewing, and I have to admit I felt things could have been trimmed substantially in the edit bay. David Prior’s direction of key scenes and the film’s effective “spooky” sequences – notably a night-time demon ceremony in the woods that turns into a discombobulating race and chase – offer plenty of chills but there’s gaps of exposition and lacklustre character development between them that really sour the movies pace. The first and final acts of The Empty Man are genuinely terrifying, and there’s glimpses of a truly effective horror movie between these bookends but I struggled to enjoy them. Overall, a solid horror movie that runs too long and is too dour to energise its audience with intelligence.

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