David Prior’s ‘The Empty Man’ is the Hidden Gem of 2020

It’s a great treasure going into a movie completely blind. That was the case with David Prior’s The Empty Man, a film that was released in October of 2020 but has only recently begun to receive attention. I didn’t know this film existed until a few weeks ago when some people whose opinions I trust were tweeting about this film so I figured what the hell and rented it, and I purposely avoided watching a trailer or reading anything past the brief synopsis. Sometimes you just know when you should go in blind, and I was right. The Empty Man is a hypnotically patient and utterly terrifying horror film, had I known about it last year and seen it, it would have certainly been in my favorite 25 films of that year. It’s a true hidden gem. So with all that, I recommend going into this as blind as possible. Stop reading right now if you can, take the opportunity.

Based on the little-known comic series The Empty Man, Prior’s film follows James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), a retired policeman who investigates the disappearance of his neighbor’s daughter and comes across a secretive cult hoping to summon an evil entity. Note: This could have been written by Ed Brubaker with its neo-noir tinges and an occult evil. 

The narrative directorial debut of David Prior is a massively impressive one. He cut his bones under David Fincher, directing and producing the documentaries on the bonus features of Fincher’s films (the documentaries he made on the Zodiac director’s cut blu ray are particularly good). He’s confident and ambitious, two of the most important qualities I like in a debut. He’s not afraid to play things slow and atmospheric, and avoids convention even when it’s teed right up for him. I was powerless against how confident and exact his debut was. As the film goes on, the titular boogeyman is employed less of a traditional urban legend slasher it sets it up as and something more unknowable and unexplainable. The film continually did things I did not expect and it did them with calm assurance from Prior’s direction. He knows how to execute a scare and keep us on edge. This film just scratched so many itches of mine: Cult shit, Lovecraft shit, noir shit. I’m also a sucker for films that don’t drop their title card until 20 minutes into the runtime, so I was helpless here when The Empty Man did just that after a knockout prologue. 

A bit of history on how a film this good and unique ended up being dumped onto VOD during the pandemic with no awareness. It was one of the last movies made under 20th Century Fox in 2018 before Disney bought them, and Disney looked at a 2+ hour bizarre and slow horror film and said “we don’t know what the fuck to do with this shit.” and eventually dumped it on VOD in October of 2020. And the little marketing they did certainly didn’t do the film any favors. The trailer makes it look as generic as possible, like some bland dvd release, and the poster looks like it was made in 5 minutes in photoshop. This is a harder film to describe to people, but they do themselves an injustice by trying to make the film look as shittily derivative as the trailer and poster would make you think. 

It’s prologue is certainly one of its inarguably best features. It sets a mythological background for what we’re about to get into with confident control of mood. It’s clear we’re in for a worthy ride in these first twenty minutes. Dare I invoke The Exorcist in comparison to how it presents its ancient evil via mood and dread for the first twenty minutes of its film?

I’ve always liked James Badge Dale, so any opportunity he has to lead a film I’m there. He always steps up to the plate no matter the role. He has two of the most realistic reactions in a horror situation that I’ve seen in a horror film. You’ll know them when you see them. Stephen Root puts on a great one-scene showstealer too. 

The cinematography by Anastas N. Michos is superb, he and Prior let their scenes take their time in long takes and make excellent use of empty space. There’s plenty of shots where you’re looking real close and can’t tell if you’re actually seeing something in the distant darkness and shadows or if you’ve just tricked yourself into seeing something, playing with the film’s examination of urban legends. There are some real nightmarish images from this film that are seared into my brain. One word: bonfire. You’ll know it when you see it. Fucking terrifying. They use the division of mirrors and windows to break up the frame to slowly set the stage for an ever-shifting reality. Christopher Young and Lustmord craft a slow, tonal work that subtly amps up the dread to nightmarish proportions as the film goes on. 

I have no clue what was going on for the last 15 minutes of that film, but by that point I didn’t care for the specifics. The roads we had taken to get there were so fascinating I could forgive any stumbling through exposition. I was a frog caught in the slow boil of this film. If I understood it perfectly I wouldn’t love it as much, if that makes sense. It’s a wonder this got made by a major studio at all. They just don’t make 2+ hour slow-burn genre films, especially not ones based on a property that so few know about that it might as well be an original idea. It’s a shame this wasn’t properly advertised prior to its release, but thankfully the word of mouth has it headed for cult status. I wish I’d even known about it when it got dumped last year, but I’m immensely glad it found me the way it did and that I went in knowing absolutely nothing. It definitely is one of my favorites to be released in 2020. I hope you give it a chance, and I hope it takes you by complete surprise as well.

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