At first glance, the new horror movie The Empty Man might seem like a breath of fresh air. That’s mainly because it’s not a reboot of or a sequel to a well-worn piece of IP. Could it be a brand-new idea? Well, no. It’s actually an adaptation of a graphic novel of the same name by Cullen Bunn. (Note: I have not read it.) However, the fact that it’s not about a character even your nana knows makes it practically a revelation. Unfortunately, as you’ll find out in our Empty Man review, the near-innovation basically stops there.
Who’s Afraid of the Empty Man?: The Plot
image via 20th Century Studios
The majority of the movie is set in 2018 Missouri. After his teenage neighbor Amanda (Sasha Frolova) goes missing, her mom Nora (Marin Ireland) asks retired cop James (James Badge Dale) to look for her. Once he starts looking into Amanda’s disappearance, though, he finds out that she’s not the only local teen missing. And as he digs further, the case gets more complicated and more disturbing.
As Davara (Samantha Logan), the only teen in their friend circle who hasn’t gone missing, tells James, the group had an interesting evening shortly before the disappearances. At Amanda’s prompting, they tried summoning an entity known as The Empty Man. Now they’re all gone, and the few clues include Amanda’s writing “THE EMPTY MAN MADE ME DO IT” on her bedroom wall in blood. Yikes.
These are not unfamiliar ideas, obviously. This kind of story calls to mind internet urban legends like Slenderman, as well as characters like Candyman and The Bye Bye Man. Hell, even Beetlejuice. Basically any boogeyman you can (allegedly) summon. But again, that’s not bad on its own. There is the potential for great stories here.
The Empty Man Review: It’s Too Long
image via 20th Century Studios
And from the start, it seems as if they’re going to pull it off with The Empty Man. We begin in Bhutan in the 90s, following a quartet of friends who are hiking in the Himalayas. When one of them is injured and then the weather turns, they hole up in a suspiciously abandoned house. I liked this sequence, finding it effectively thrilling, but in retrospect, it’s emblematic of the biggest issue with the movie. Namely, this opening sequence runs almost a half-hour. If you think that seems crazy to spend a half hour on the opening, especially since it turns out to be only tangentially related to the main plot, then you’re right. However, you’re also not taking something important into account.
You probably think this is a film with a standard horror movie run time, usually about an hour and half to an hour and forty-five minutes. Ha. No, this is a movie that runs for a staggering two hours and seventeen minutes. So in light of that, you don’t really notice how long it all is. But once it transitions into the main plot, oh, do you notice.
Because as its core, this is a very simple story. Teens go missing, guy investigates and finds out what happened. But finding out what happened leads James to the secretive Pontifex Society, a group with obvious culty vibes. And that’s where everything falls apart.
Once we’re introduced to the Society, you’d probably assume that the movie will follow familiar cult movie beats. James tries to get close or even infiltrate the group, for example, only to find himself in over his head. It then leads to a climax, where James maybe joins the group or is victimized by it. Perhaps there’s even a shocking twist.
And It’s Too Empty
And to an extent, that’s what happens. He investigates the group, meeting their apparent leader, Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root). He talks to members like Garrett (Robert Aramayo). But it’s here that the movie falters, opting to pump the brakes so James, et al can have endless philosophical conversations. This was telegraphed, by the way, by the reveal that the kids attend Jacques Derrida High School, a detail that may or may not have caused me to utter an obscenity aloud.
There are some interesting ideas here, but it never seems as if the movie is sure enough about them. There’s no real substance to its philosophy, no there there. The movie is never subtle in its exposition, but it becomes unbearable with the meandering explanations that fill the last half hour. The film has a truly apropos name, as it’s mostly empty space.
Further, there’s a reveal at the end that should be shocking, but it lands with a muted thump. And were you to rewatch the movie to look for clues, I’m not sure it would be satisfying. As it is, just watching the movie once feels insubstantial. There were some good creepy moments in the movie, but they would have been better served by a tighter story.
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featured image via 20th Century Studios
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.