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Last February something peculiar caught my interest on Twitter. It was a short tweet written by Canadian horror writer and screenwriter Gemma Files. She’s an author whose work I love and admire – check out her very disturbing free short story “each thing i show you is a piece of my death” if you want to discover her work (that title by itself is already unnerving and titillating at the same time). Now Mrs. Files is not only versed in the art of creating fear, but she is also a former professional film critic. In other words, when she has something to say about a film I tend to listen carefully.

The content of the tweet was the text “Movies I feel like were made for me” accompanied by four pictures. There was a still from Gangs of New York, one from Ravenous, and two others I didn’t recognize. The third picture turned out to be from May the Devil Take You.

But it was actually the fourth movie still that immediately fascinated me. It was a shot of a man inside a cave, who stares at some kind of alien skeleton with lots of arms. The vibe reminded me of the astronauts from Alien who discover the fossilized skeleton of an engineer in his chair.

It was a still from a movie I didn’t know: The Empty Man.

The Empty What?

The Empty Man is a supernatural horror film from writer/director David Prior. In a prologue that is immensely long (20 minutes or so) but equally fascinating, we follow four American backpackers who travel to Bhutan in 1995.

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the empty man explained

The Empty Man, 2020

There in the mountains one of them, Paul, stumbles in a crevice. There he discovers the mysterious alien skeleton. It transfixes him completely and Paul is forever changed, his behaviour becoming strange and erratic. Another backpacker, Ruthie, starts seeing a mysterious figure – the titular Empty Man. She finally murders her fellow travellers and then throws herself off a cliff, right after sharing a knowing look with Paul.

In 2018 ex-detective Jason Lasombra is still haunted by flashbacks and a troubled traumatic past. He is contacted by his “friend” Nora whose daughter Amanda has gone missing. Jason discovers that Amanda and her group of friends tried to conjure the Empty Man, an urban legend. Soon the persons of the group start to commit suicide one by one, forced to do this by the Empty Man.

the empty man explained

The Empty Man, 2020

Jason’s investigations lead him to a Scientology-like cult called the “Pontifex Institute”. They seem connected to the beliefs of the Empty Man, and apparently try to summon a so-called Tulpa or thoughtform. In one of the most striking sequences of the film Jason watches the cult create a bonfire. What happens next is a sublime moment of dread and creepiness, which is probably influenced by this music video.

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Meanwhile Jason’s condition starts to deteriorate. His flashbacks and hallucinations get worse, and he slowly starts to lose his grip on reality. This and the further plot development send Jason into a straight up existential crisis – and that’s quite an understatement I use here.

So where did this fascinating film originate?

The Making Of The Empty Man

Filmmaker David Prior started his career making extra content for DVD releases. His breakout job was the production of a special-edition DVD of Ravenous (Mrs. Files, did you know that?), after which he produced tons of behind the scenes videos and feature length making of documentaries. And this for films like Zodiac, Master and Commander, The Social Network. Because of this and his talent David has become the protégé of that other David: Fincher.

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In 2008 Prior showed his ambition as a horror filmmaker and made the excellent short AM1200, which has a similar oppressing Lovecraftian sphere of dread. When looking for material for his feature film debut, he was sent the comic book series, The Empty Man, by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey. It inspired him to write a very loose adaptation of that existing IP.

The film production was not without its problems, especially in the post production and distribution phase. Their executive at Fox left, leaving the film hanging in a kind of limbo. Next Fox cut together a trailer making it look like the new Slender Man / The Bye Bye Man / Who Cares Man?, purely aimed at a teenage audience looking for the next creepypasta (and for some part that is correct – more on that later). But the problems didn’t stop there. The studio faced losing a beneficial tax refund from South Africa, where most of “The Empty Man” was filmed. And while the finishing of the film was still in full swing – it was considered too long even by Prior, who was planning on cutting out at least 6 more minutes – Fox decided to quickly release it. And so all of its 137 minutes was dumped into theatres in October 2020 in full pandemic times. Not surprisingly it didn’t perform well, but very quickly it found a new breath and fandom with its consequent releases on VOD and streaming services. It became a cult hit. But why did this happen, and is the film actually worthy of this title?

The Empty Man Explained

Several facts make this film stand out from the crowd. Its running time to start with. It is highly unusual for a studio horror film to have a running length of 2 hours and 17 minutes. For something post-horror or artsy elevated like Midsommar sure, but for a “normal” studio flick? Not a chance! Prior notes that this fact alone gave him attention from execs from other studios: it made them curious.

A second major reason is its intricate and interesting thematic imagery. For example images and references to bridges are spread out throughout the entire film: in Bhutan, in the US where the teenagers try to conjure the Empty Man, in the name “Pontifex.” Also the belief system of the cult is very fascinating, finding the right balance between teasing interesting new ideas without explaining too much. As a viewer one can feel that this film has much to offer, and that it requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate this.

Let’s look at an example. The school the teenagers attend is called the Jacques Derrida High School. French philosopher Derrida is mostly known for its concept of deconstruction: this is not coincidental of course, as the film itself deconstructs and breaks down the identity of Jason. Prior has stated that this was the primary reason for this reference. But I would argue that the concept of deconstruction is also – unwillingly or not – even more present in the construction of the film.

When I first watched the film it struck me how dense and rich it was (it is never boring despite its length). But it also feels confused and forced. Instead of watching one film I had the feeling I saw several short films, mostly in an episodic order.

It starts with the fascinating sequence in Bhutan – almost a short film in its own right. Then it changes into a teenage supernatural slasher. This transforms into a hard boiled detective story (Mystery horror) with a Ringu vibe, and consequently changes into a film about dangerous cults and the supernatural once again. Finally (and for me as a viewer the least interesting) the true meaning of those jarring flashbacks the protagonist has are revealed in the final chapter, in a very Shutter Island or even Hellraiser: Inferno way.

— FOUNDATIONS OF HORROR

Further explore these subgenres & tropes. more>>
#Lovecraftian | #Supernatural horror | #Mystery horror

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What this film seems to be saying to me is that it is all of these subgenres combined, in a way to find its own identity. To have The Empty Man explained is to, maybe, find that it has no clear identity or “essence”… that is just a construction of existing elements and subgenres. This is for me an interesting deconstruction of the horror genre itself, where there is always a tension between genre expectations and genre tropes… and a fresh innovative take on those tropes.

That’s why we are always excited when a horror movie touches us, because we were sure that we had already seen everything. For that reason alone, The Empty Man is worth your time.

Last Updated on June 3, 2021.

Jasper Vrancken
Jasper Vrancken is a filmmaker, teacher and researcher, specializing in the horror genre. He teaches film and video production at the Luca School of Arts in Belgium, and is currently pursuing a PhD in the Arts. You can catch his work on his Vimeo page.

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