One of the movies I missed in 2020.

The Empty Man was shot in 2017 and had to wait for years to finally come out, caught in the net of 20th Century Fox being purchased by the Walt Disney Company and thus owned by a corporation that had absolutely no idea what in Hell's name they were supposed to do with something this cold and soaked in death.* To be fair to Disney, I'm not sure that any other distributor would have had better luck; The Empty Man is a very strange sort of horror movie that doesn't have any natural spot to go in the contemporary horror marketplace, and it's a little hard to see why a major studio thought it was worth tackling this adaptation of Cullen Bunn and Vanessa R. Del Rey's 2014 comic book miniseries in the first place. Though my impression is that the film's writer-director, David Prior, didn't feel too terribly constrained by his source material, so who knows. The point is, The Empty Man is weird as hell, weird as only a junky-looking by-the-books horror movie that feels like it has enough narrative content to justify a 137-minute running time could be.

Here's one of the many wild and unexpected things about the movie: it earns that running time. Or, at any rate, it's not as hilariously awful about it as I had assumed it would be. This is mostly because The Empty Man really ends up being three films run end-to-end. Not three distinct films, though how in God's name the first has anything to do with the second other than in adding a bit of atmospheric flavor isn't clear for quite a long stretch. The point being, the film keeps changing often enough that even when it's boring (and it definitely is capable of being boring), it's not boring for too very long.

The first film is probably the best; it is certainly the tidiest. In 1995, four American friends are on a mountaineering adventure in Bhutan, and we pick up with them right around the time the adventure is kicking into overdrive, thanks to a terrifyingly scrawny bridge spanning a God-knows-how-deep gorge. The cinematography, by Anastas Michos, is washed-out and skewed hard to bluish-white, all the better to immediately give us a sense of the thin, cold air and hazy aura of existing in a place more of myth than of the physical world, turning whatever rocky area this was shot in (the movie was mostly filmed in South Africa, with a weeklong detour to a small town in rural Illinois) into something that really does feel like the inaccessible, alien roof of the world. It's a great setting for a horror film, not because it's especially ominous or foreboding - the bridge is certainly terrifying, but not exactly "horror movie" scary - but simply because feels so profoundly inhuman, a space where we simply haven't any business being whatsoever.

And that plays out over the opening 20 minutes or so of the movie, which finds one of the friends, Paul (Aaron Poole), plunging into a crevasse and getting lost in a cave. By the time fellow climber Greg (Evan Jonigkeit) gets to him, Paul has drifted into a catatonic or trancelike state, apparently caught up with contemplating a skeleton that has been arranged into a kind of honorific tableau; it is not exactly a human skeleton, either. Whatever it is, it seems to have impressed Paul quite greatly, and after Greg and their friends Ruthie (Virginia Kull) and Fiona (Jessica Matten) have dragged Paul back to an old cabin for shelter, Things start happening. Seeing stuff that isn't there at first, then Ruthie gets a little ghostly and weird, and by the third day on the mountain, at least three of the climbers have died.

I don't think it's going to far to say that this prologue is actually, genuinely great horror filmmaking. It's atmospheric, but in an unconventional way: rather than using the strong shadows and negative space that horror has been relying on since the silent Expressionist days, it's all about flat lighting with limited contrast, and the emptiness of the location is more threatening than the creepiness of it (I think I'd hardly be alone in suggesting that the bridge is much more unnerving than the skeleton). At the same time, nothing about it is "art" or "elevated" horror; that is, in fact, one of the reasons that I imagine The Empty Man would have been hard to market, on paper it sounds like it's checking all of the elevated horror boxes, and yet in the midst of watching it, that's not what it feels like at all. At any rate, once the film's title finally appears, some 20 minutes into it (the "P" being replaced by a blank spot), I was good and jangled and ready for-

-something else. The second main stretch of the movie is, to be honest, a pretty big disappointment. Not because it shifts genres, though it does so, successfully. Now it's 2018, and our protagonist is an ex-cop named James (James Badge Dale), who has been pretty well checked out of life since his wife and child died in an accident some time ago. What gets him back into the world is when a friend, Nora (Marin Ireland) approaches him about helping to find her missing teen daughter, leaving behind a message scrawled in blood on the bathroom wall, "The Empty Man made me do it". As the real police start to investigate, James starts to track down the girl's friends, and finds that they all have similar stories about an urban legend sort of figure who they might have collectively accidentally summoned, a ghost that troubles you for two days and then kills you on the third. For all of them, the third day is coming right along, and given that right around when we met James, the words "First Day" were presented onscreen in enormous text, it's pretty clear that he's not in much better shape than the kids.

The best thing The Empty Man has going for it is that it's extremely easy to compare it to The Bye Bye Man from 2017 and Slender Man from 2018 - hell, even just the titles! - and conclude that, if nothing else, it's surely a lot better than those two movies are. This is an indescribably low bar, of course. But it's still a bar that The Empty Man dances right over. Prior's directing is a bit more pedestrian than in the terrific prologue, but he's using that absurd running time well to allow moments to slowly ooze over us, getting a sense of tension out of stillness and slowness. The bigger problem is that it all feels so monstrously formulaic, inevitably calling to mind the Ur-text of 21st Century horror movies about ghosts who work on a distinct timetable, The Ring, and all the many, many films that have borrowed from it. And James isn't an interesting character, nor is Dale an engaging lead, and we spend damn near every minute with him.

So that's all awfully bland, until around the midpoint, when the film shifts again, and becomes... well, I can't really say that. But it's a very palpable feeling when it happens, as James's investigation takes him to what seems for all the world like a church centered around the Empty Man, led by the benevolently menacing Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root, making a huge impression with a small role). And here we will leave plot synopsis behind, saying only that whatever The Empty Man has been, it's not anymore; including, arguably, no longer being a horror movie, but instead a weird-ass combo pack of paranoia thriller and vision of great cosmic evil, like if Ben Wheatley remade The Parallax View or something. It's nowhere near as perfect as that opening act, but it's more interesting, if only because it's strange this many new ideas suddenly come flying into the movie. Prior and his crew also perk right up, creating far more interesting setpieces than the bland shuffling in and out of houses that were going on before, including one excellent scene involving spying on a group of people around a bonfire and the muddy brown blackness of a forest night.

The film's second half is messy, but bracingly so; but who this is for, I really can't say. A strong vein of stubborn, frustrating anti-climax is burned into the material in some ways, with James never exactly figuring anything out as he keeps bumblefucking his way from one strange development to the next. It's too conventional a horror film to be this elliptical and to flaunt this many rules as late into the running time as it does, perhaps. Still, something you don't know what to do with is always better than something you've figured out immediately and gotten bored by, for me nowhere more than in horror, and as ungainly as The Empty Man is, I was enthralled by everything about the very peculiar shape its story takes in the second half.




*The distributor's palpable desire to just be rid of the thing is nowhere more plainly demonstrated than in the presence of the 20th Century Fox studio logo at the beginning, everybody apparently having forgotten that it was renamed 20th Century Studios months prior to the film's October 2020 release.