The first night, you hear him. The second night, you see him. The third night, he finds you. This is an apt description for both the film The Empty Man and its titular character. It has been on the road to cult film status for quite some time since its quiet release in October of 2020. Possibly the last film released by 20th Century Fox before its rebranding by Disney, The Empty Man is a film whose production has all the hallmarks of cult movies we know and love today. Test screenings that went badly, re-cuts that were almost released in its place, big changes in the studio that jeopardized the film’s fate, and a first time director promised full studio trust only to have his vision nearly stripped from him.
The film itself is a slow, meditative and psychological horror flick that takes its time to craft an entire world in its unidentified city. 135 minutes is a lot for a typical horror film and writer-director David Prior uses them all efficiently. Clever insert shots and recurring images like bridges and portraits all prove that Prior is a master of worldbuilding and creating tension. The titular Empty Man is a being that might conjure images of creepypasta characters like the Slender Man or urban legends that predate the internet, but what separates this being from the rest is that he has a tangible history and detailed modus operandi. The viewer racks their brain as the clock begins to wind down for its characters, whether it’s a group of hikers in Bhutan or our protagonist James. We spend almost half an hour in an extended prologue with those aforementioned hikers, an introduction that sets up the world of the film quite well. Prior also establishes his techniques masterfully, with a careful use of interior shots and a color palette reminiscent of David Fincher. It makes sense, considering Prior began his career making production documentaries on Fincher’s sets. That same clinical and dark atmosphere of films like Zodiac is present here.
The film reminds me quite a bit of an odd subgenre that I’ve completely fallen in love with recently, that I’m going to refer to as “cops ‘n’ ghosts”. A simple idea, but most of the films that use this premise are relatively tonally consistent. Movies like The Exorcist III (I will write about that film someday, I promise) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure, both movies about police officers in over their heads when an unfathomable evil begins to rise up from the dark cracks of their cities, seem to be a major influence here. Consider The Empty Man an ending to a loose trilogy or the latest entry into a very specific subgenre, yet another story of a grizzled cop encountering nefarious forces nearly impossible to define. Our hero James has lost a lot when we first meet him, and the audience really gets the sense that he’s on his last leg as soon as the story begins. I mean, any guy his age who still goes around chatting to the neighborhood teens clearly has some stuff going on. Something the movie does a good job of getting right is that it makes the audience feel as if they’ve been dropped into a world with deep-seeded lore.
The Bhutan prologue contains a lot of striking imagery that I wish was present throughout, but as the film went on I became more accustomed to its more suburban disturbances. There’s a sequence that rivals Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Spahn Ranch section in length and pacing, and I absolutely love it. In this stretch Prior gets to pull out all the stops, where a slow and creeping investigation leads to an explosive conclusion. The ending will throw a wrench into things for some, but the abruptness of it really impressed me, especially in contrast with the slow nature of the two hours leading to it.
The Empty Man is already on its way to becoming the latest cult classic, as I’m only the latest in a long line of essays, videos and Letterboxd reviews praising the film while seemingly being unable to find the words to describe it. David Prior has said in a recent interview that the final cut of his film was left alone in anticipation that it would fall through the cracks, and I’m glad that it’s slowly being revived and spread through my little corner of the internet. I can’t wait to see revival screenings of this come up. The great thing about this film is that it exists in a place beyond comprehension. I heard about it. Then I saw it. Then it found me.