David Prior made his directorial debut THE EMPTY MAN great horror classics as a model. And even if it doesn’t quite live up to this due to minor flaws, his modern spooky piece is gripping and oppressive. We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: The Empty Man (USA/ZAF/UK 2020)
Former detective James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) lost his wife Hallison and son Henry in a car accident a year ago. He has spent his rather bleak time since then as a salesman in a security store. One day, a friend named Nora (Marin Ireland) calls him for help: her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) has disappeared without a trace and on the mirror of her apartment there is an inscription written in blood: “The Empty Man made me do it”. Despite this news, the police see no reason to investigate and assume that the young girl ran away from home. So James takes on the case himself and discovers a gruesome legend behind the “Empty Man” that soon has him under his control…
In the 1970s and 1980s, it was relatively easy for horror filmmakers to establish major horror icons. Based on the hype surrounding characters like Michael Meyers, Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees, all you had to do was put some kind of frightening mask on your killer, give him a somewhat exciting backstory and a cult figure was born. This still works today: Although not nearly as successful and therefore omnipresent as the teen slashers of past decades that have spawned countless sequels, even the masked faces from “The Strangers” or “The Purge” were able to achieve a certain status. Recently, however, the manual effort required to create horror figures with cult potential gave way to simple creation on the computer. And with the help of lame scripts, neither “The Bye Bye Man” nor “Slender Man” became a comparable cult, although the potential for this – consisting of recognition value, a catchy name and an interesting background – definitely existed. Debutant director David Prior is now making his next attempt with “The Empty Man”: His titular monster is based on a well-known comic series, so it already has a certain fan base. Her backstory is interesting and even a blatant part of the film. And last but not least, the (death) rules it emanates are simple. And lo and behold: Despite minor flaws, Prior has created an extremely successful representative of the modern horror thriller, which borrows from one of the best genre films in recent history.
A spooky find, deep underground.
Unlike “Hereditary”, “Get Out” or the “Suspiria” remake, “The Empty Man” cannot be assigned to the “new intellectual horror” trend that has been growing for several years, as a result of which various horror filmmakers suddenly started , to enrich profound drama fates with horror elements in order to let the horror of tangible everyday fates speak for themselves instead of banal shock effects. The fact that “The Empty Man”, which “only” tells a straight spooky story, still has a running time of almost two and a half hours (!), suggests that Prior, who is also responsible for the script, has more in mind than just stringing together a few banal jump scares , as many of his colleagues recently handled. Instead, Prior finds his role model, both narrative and directing – more on that later – in a modern genre classic from the early 2000s: Gore Verbinski’s “Ring”, the outstanding US remake of the Japanese horror film “Ringu”. This is precisely why “The Empty Man” can only be described as something of an innovation to a limited extent: many of the motifs that make up the film have already been seen in modified form in many other films of this type. And yet Prior manages to prepare them in such a way that they still have their full effect here.
“Many of the motifs that make up the film have already been seen in modified form in many other films of this type. And yet Prior manages to prepare them in such a way that they still have their full effect here.”
This begins with the description of the ghostly figure and what an encounter with him entails: If you call him by blowing into an empty bottle on a bridge and thinking very firmly about the Empty Man, you are calling him. Legend has it that you hear it the following day, see it on the second day and find (= kill) you on the third day. But that’s not the only place where memories of “Ring” are brought back: the investigation into the missing person case of Amanda, who is said to have previously called the Empty Man together with friends, is also made up of the same set pieces as Naomi Watts’ search for the author of the cursed one Death videos. Conversations with Amanda’s best friend Davara (Samantha Logan) and vague suggestions that the Empty Man might have something to do with her disappearance are followed by meticulous research that draws James further and further into a mysterious cult. Sometimes concrete settings are even similar, for example when James drives to a lonely hut to get to the bottom of the clues. Some of the motifs may certainly be due to the atmosphere itself – it’s simply much more impressive when someone sits in a lonely wooden hut and investigates various creepy missing persons and deaths than if they do this at home or in an office. But it serves its purpose and intensifies the consistently uneasy mood, which is fostered by James’ surprisingly authentic demeanor. He is not a hardened (ex-)detective who takes all the findings that come to light for granted, but instead reacts in many moments in a close, human way, so that you can empathize with him throughout despite the increasingly contrived premise.
James (James Badge Dale) gets to the bottom of the legend of the Empty Man…
The fact that “The Empty Man” is not boring despite its well-known motifs is not only due to the occasional jump scares, which David Prior knows how to place very specifically and therefore all the more effectively. But above all because of everything he builds around the legend of the Empty Man, based on the comic book. In contrast to comparable horror monsters such as the “Bye Bye Man” or the “Slender Man”, the creation of the Empty Man presented here and the fascination it creates are real. For example, Prior takes time for a twenty-minute prologue (which, by the way, would also work perfectly as a short film!), in which the backstory of the Empty Man legend is presented in an equally compact and intensive way. In this way, you immediately become aware of the dimensions of the story without having to anticipate all the answers to open questions. And then there is the main character James, who initially seems like a lame horror film stereotype with his portrayal of a fate-stricken ex-cop who can only cope with everyday life with the help of medication and is plagued by terrible nightmares. But over time, even this assumption is revealed to be a mistake by the events in the film – in “The Empty Man” (almost) everything has some plausible reason.
“In contrast to comparable horror monsters such as the “Bye Bye Man” or the “Slender Man”, the emergence of the Empty Man presented here and the fascination he creates are real.”
“Ring” was also the audiovisual inspiration for “The Empty Man”. Cinematographer Anastas N. Michos (“The First Purge”) immerses the film in nightmare images dominated by gray and blue tones, which always have their greatest impact when Michos stays on an image for as long as possible and captures tiny changes in detail without immediately ending such a shot with a jump scare. The world portrayed here appears intangible and inhospitable, which offers a nice contrast to the down-to-earth investigative methods. Only the early showing of the Empty Man himself, whose appearance is not entirely convincing, doesn’t quite fit with Prior’s principle of deciphering the horror little by little.
Conclusion: David Prior’s directorial debut “The Empty Man” is a strongly staged horror thriller that works so well despite small flaws because the filmmaker, who was also responsible for the script, doesn’t just string together clumsy shock effects, but rather combines his almost two and a half hour film with a captivating story and a plausible one Origin story of its titular monster.
“The Empty Man” is available on VOD on US streaming platforms. A start in United Kingdom is not yet known.