If a horror movie is going to exceed an hour and 40 minutes, it better have a good reason. “The Empty Man’s” near two and a half-hour run time only serves to stretch out this could-have-been-intriguing horror movie into a clunky, inconsistent thriller with a few spooky moments. A clever plot and competent filmmaking only mean so much when a film bores me to the point that I had to watch it in multiple sittings.
“The Empty Man” is basically three stories in one. The opening sequence is reminiscent of “The Ritual,” with four friends on a hiking trip in the middle of nowhere when something goes wrong. The second act of the movie is “It” meets police thriller. James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), an ex-cop, helps his neighbor track down her daughter, whose friends are dying in mysterious ways. The last act of the movie is both the most compelling and simultaneously the most boring. In James’s search, he uncovers a nefarious cult, which slowly breaks down the world around him. The movie ends on a rather ambiguous and unsatisfying note.
At times this movie felt extremely ambitious and clever. The opening story and James’s first experience at the Pontifex cult headquarters were both very unique and insightful takes on rather overdone tropes. But these moments of dexterity were undercut by the far more frequent, overly simplistic and borderline silly scenes like when the group of teens summons the Empty Man or when James embarks on one of the most poorly shot research scenes I’ve ever experienced. He spends a few minutes on Wikipedia and the information presented via close-ups of the website showed such large, unclear blocks of text that I took in none of the information presented in this already lazy exposition dump.
Beautifully shot scenes that discuss Nietzsche and present complicated concepts about society and psychology are back-to-back with teens blowing on a bottle and thinking about the Empty Man. The third act is very dialogue-heavy and forces the audience to think about the last two hours of the movie. It would have been an excellent conclusion had the first two acts been executed with more grace and cohesion, but the directorial vision felt so confused and inconsistent for the entire movie that by the end, I did not know what to think. I had given up on carefully following the plot or caring what happened to any of the characters, so despite the compelling theoretical ending that was meant to put the rest of the movie into a completely different, more ambiguous lens, I was just waiting for the movie to end.
The characters in this film never seemed to hit correctly. Character types often portrayed inaccurately in movies fell short in “The Empty Man” as well. All of the teens felt right out of “Riverdale” in terms of their overacting, excessive use of stereotypes and lack of legitimate motivations. The Pontifex cult, while it discussed interesting concepts and created an unsettling atmosphere, when presented via individual characters, comes off as a caricature of a weird death cult. Even James and Amanda’s mom are surface-level characters, never developed much further than an ex-cop with a dark past and a single mom who is worried. It must be noted that the end of this movie does give somewhat of an explanation for its underdeveloped characters and usage of stereotypes, but not to a degree that can properly excuse them and the legitimate drain they have on the movie as a whole.
“The Empty Man” is a horror movie at its core. In the few instances when the film put its pretension aside and focused on creating scary scenes, it did so very well. Two tactics that I always love in horror movies were used quite often throughout this film: first, the sudden sound of running footsteps coming from the darkness and, second, imperceptible whispers. Both techniques are very unobtrusive ways to make an audience feel deeply unsettled. You’re aware something important is happening right in front of you, but you cannot quite make it out. On a different note, scenes with the Empty Man, the Bloody Mary equivalent in this film, are consistently chilling. While it is practically impossible to do a slasher scene in a unique way, “The Empty Man” brings a mysticality to its titular character’s appearances that makes them feel original. This film may not have had enough horror scenes throughout, but the moments when horror was the focus served their purpose well.
“The Empty Man” has its moments of great depth, horror and artistry, but the disjointed chaotic flow and structure led to a disappointing experience. To make things worse, its two-and-a-quarter-hour run time will drain any audience of the initial intrigue this movie entailed.