October 29, 2023


The Empty Man Is the Next Great Cult Horror Film (Tres Dean, 4/06/21, Vulture)

The plot (minor spoilers ahead), at least on a surface level, follows Badge Dale's James Lasombra, a former detective sleepwalking through his day-to-day after the death of his wife and son in an accident. When the daughter of a family friend seemingly runs away, her mother asks for Lasombra's help in tracking her down. The search takes him to, in no particular order: a cult, a group of kids spooked by an urban legend, a campground, and a mysterious hospital patient. [...]

The film's visual language leaves you queasy, feeling certain that something isn't quite right, even if you can't articulate what it is. You won't realize until a shot has cut that it evoked an image from a few scenes earlier. You'll watch a character pass a framed picture and only realize upon second viewing (you will want, and need, a second viewing) that it depicts the cottage from the film's prologue. Your hair will come to stand on end at the sight of bridges.

Perhaps most notably, Prior plays with the visual signature of the director he shadowed for years as a producer of DVD special features. David Fincher's meticulous tracking of his characters' every motion via camera movement is subverted here -- the camera will linger on an empty space before any character enters it. It will lag in following them out of a room, ruminating in the uncomfortable stillness they leave behind. It all lends to a feeling of cosmic insignificance. Our protagonists aren't the heroes of their journey but rather pawns moving through a space that existed long before them, and will remain long after they leave it.

And then there's the film's signature setpiece, a tour de force of horror filmmaking that takes place toward the end of its second act. The less said about it the better -- again, the film is best seen as blindly as possible -- but Prior's filmmaking prowess is in full flex mode as Lasombra investigates the aforementioned campground. It's the sort of sequence that, a mere year into the 2020s, stakes its claim as the scariest horror moment of the decade.

The film is not without faults, but they're the sort of faults that hardly seem to matter when weighed against everything it does right. The Empty Man feels like something of a miracle. Horror films of this scale, of this budget, of this raw, unbridled ambition, aren't supposed to get made anymore. It is shocking that it was green-lit to begin with and entirely unsurprising, in a sense, that it was shelved by Disney. This movie is borderline unmarketable, an existential cosmic epic that questions every pillar upon which we've built our perceptions of reality. It is made to be discovered, to find its audience slowly over time.

Watching this home alone was a terrible mistake.

Posted by at October 29, 2023 12:00 AM