Based on a 2014 comic book series, The Empty Man (Amazon Prime) finds a murderous supernatural entity lurking in the belief system of a cult operating in St. Louis, Missouri. When James Badge Dale is embroiled in their particular brand of weird, he finds out where he’s been all his life might not be where he always thought he was.
The Gist: The Empty Man opens in 1995 Bhutan. Four backpackers are thrown into a panic when one of their number falls into a cave and is rendered catatonic. Chanted mantras, visions in the snowy mountains, and acute violence ensue, before the film flashes forward to 2018 Missouri, where ex-cop and widower James (James Badge Dale) works as a personal security expert. When Amanda (Sasha Frolova), the teenage daughter of his neighbor and ex-lover Nora (Marin Ireland) disappears, James starts asking questions, and uncovers a cryptic legend about The Empty Man. In a riff on the Slender Man creepypasta, Candyman, and childhood ephemera like “Light as a feather, stiff as a board” and Bloody Mary, The Empty Man supposedly appears when one thinks of him while blowing into a bottle. Oh, and you need to be on a bridge. When teens start dropping like flies, leaving behind scrawls that read “The Empty Man Made Me Do It,” James and Nora grow even more worried for Amanda’s safety.
James’s probing leads him to the Pontifex Institute, where culty vibes emanate from the smiling young automatons staffing the reception area. His nightmares increase; he develops a chronic nosebleed. More probing sends him into the woods outside of St. Louis and an old summer camp, where he discovers members of Pontifex amassing around a giant bonfire. There is more chanting, and by now James is starting to believe the Empty Man is following him. But what is the Empty Man? When James finally finds the connective tissue between what went down in Bhutan and the events of the past few days in Missouri, he’s less than prepared for how he fits into all of it.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? The Slender Man movie that appeared in 2018 was universally loathed, so perhaps it’s better to think of The Empty Man as analogous to entries that explore horror, the supernatural, and dark secrets from unlikely directions. Films like 2002’s The Mothman Prophecies, 2014’s It Follows, or even David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows follow-up, 2018’s Under The Silver Lake.
Performance Worth Watching: When James investigates the Pontifex Institute and takes in its radical ideas and bizarre tone, hitting somewhere between Scientology and motivational seminar, you’re as intrigued as he is by who might be running the show. And The Empty Man gets its man with Stephen Root, who is so great at incisive character roles like this. (Recall his work in Get Out, or No Country For Old Men.) Root delivers lines like “He beckons you to discover the true face of the world” with a blend of self-help guru evangelism and sinister augury.
Memorable Quotes: The questionnaire at the Pontifex Institute is loaded with cult-speak gobbledygook. “Until a civilization has fallen it has not yet served its purpose.” “Suicide is a form of thought control.” “Science says the genders are discrete.”
Sex and Skin: A young woman in the mental grip of The Empty Man chooses to meet her maker after disrobing in the health spa.
Our Take: The Empty Man was shot way back in 2017, only making its way off the studio shelf and into VOD marketplace in 2020, when fresh content with an actual budget became a hot commodity. It has that, and it has a well-crafted look and feel and game cast to match, in particular the always, always solid James Badge Dale. But it’s likely that Empty Man was shunted onto a movie studio siding track because it’s not quite pushy enough with its main set of scares, and not quite curious enough about the mysteries it is investigating. In short, The Empty Man is an inbetweener, and that’s a tough sell in a binary studio system.
That doesn’t make it bad. With each piece of the larger, weirder puzzle he fits into the narrative, Badge Dale keeps the audience engaged with his search for answers. And once Empty Man gets around to linking up the events of its prologue with the missing kids in Missouri and the Pontifex Institute’s far-reaching occultist tentacles, it stirs up enough freaky-deakiness to raise the hackles on your dog’s neck. “The sum of all conscious thought! The veil between form and flesh!” “We transmit; you receive.” As the eerie pseudo-scientific terminology starts intersecting with supernatural doings, and cloaked figures dance in unison around enormous bonfires, and Badge Dale’s James starts losing his marbles as he attempts to parse what’s real from what’s wacko, The Empty Man remains engaging enough as a film that’s having a whole lot of fun with its premise, even if its attempts to put a bow on that premise get increasingly convoluted.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Genre horror completists will enjoy The Empty Man‘s vibe; for most everyone else, it’ll play as a mystery with dark themes of occultism, possession, and kids driven to self-harm.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges