When Disney purchased 20th Century Fox in March 2019, the landscape of movie releases changed dramatically. One film caught up in the wash has finally found the light of day and currently sits at number eight on the HBO Max streamer. The Empty Man is a strange one. It is billed as a horror film and while it has elements of horror, it is much more than that. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, The Empty Man, by title alone, will draw comparisons to previous horror films like Slender Man or even The Bye Bye Man, but as you will find out, the comparisons are unwarranted.
The film boasts (if boasting is the right word) an amazingly lengthy 22-minute prologue. During that time span, set in 1995, we see four friends hiking in the Ura Valley, Bhutan. As Greg, Fiona, Ruthie, and Paul are traipsing the wilderness, Paul hears a strange whistling. Paul veers off to find the cause of the whistling and ends up falling into a deep crevice.
Greg locates Paul and after rappelling down to him, Greg finds Paul in a near-catatonic state, sitting next to a strange-looking skeleton that is embedded in the rock wall. Right before Greg touches Paul, Paul offers him a warning – “If you touch me, you’ll die.” Creepy.
Greg doesn’t heed the warning and lifts Paul out of the crevice where they then take refuge at a nearby cabin as a snowstorm hits. Then things get really weird. The three aren’t certain if Paul is faking because of his history of depression and a suicide attempt. Ruthie is then chased by a mysterious figure. That evening, Paul whispers something in Ruthie’s ear. But it is obvious he is slowly being possessed by an evil spirit.
When Paul goes missing, the group searches for him, finding him near a bridge. Things go from bad to worse for three of the four.
The film then jumps to the present and we meet former detective James Lasombra (an excellent James Badge Dale). He is now working at a security store after leaving the police department due to the death of his wife and son in a car accident. James reluctantly jumps back into detective mode when his next-door neighbor Nora approaches him because her daughter Amanda is missing. As James begins to take up the hunt, he and Nora find a bloody message in Amanda’s bathroom saying, “The Empty Man made me do it.”
More investigating finds that Amanda’s friends were encouraged by her to summon The Empty Man. Bodies begin to show up dead with the same message – “The Empty Man made me do it.”
James’s investigation leads him to Arthur Parsons, a cult leader of the Pontifex Institute. This cult has beliefs that originate from places like Bhutan and James is shocked when Parsons refers to The Empty Man.
When James finally catches up to Amanda, secrets are spilled. One being just what James was up to the night his wife and son died in the car accident. Another being, what exactly is the Pontifex Institute and how James is linked.
The Empty Man did not enjoy an easy production. At first, it was assumed the issues stemmed from Disney’s purchase of Fox, but that was not the case. In actuality, things began to go off the rails during the last week of filming.
The shoot was to move to Chicago for its final week but a snowstorm that dumped two feet of snow on the city stopped production dead in its tracks. David Prior wrote and directed the film and was helped along by Fox executive Mark Roybal, who Prior says was “essential” in getting The Empty Man greenlit. Mark Roybal left Fox during the weather-induced shutdown, causing the studio to bring in a new executive to help finish the film. The film’s troubles continued when the test screenings didn’t go well. Director David Prior was told to cut the film almost immediately after filming stopped, causing for a less than perfect finish.
The film’s producers then began to panic as deadlines were looming. As Prior puts it via Film School Rejects, “They’d suddenly realized they were about to lose the tax rebates from South Africa because there was a time lock on it and they have to deliver the final cut of the movie within a certain time frame.” So, Prior’s rough cut, with six minutes more film than what he intended, became The Empty Man’s final cut.
Then came Disney. “We knew that that didn’t portend well for any kind of timeliness,” David Prior says, “because even if they did intend to release it or support it, they weren’t gonna be doing it for another nine months while they figured out all of the corporate takeover stuff.”
Prior was dead on with his assessment. More than four years after the film was announced, The Empty Man finally hit theaters. By theaters, we are talking COVID pandemic theaters. Not much of an audience. The film didn’t make squat at the box office, and critics, many who didn’t even see the film, tore it up.
End of story, right? Not necessarily. Prior’s film is beginning to find an audience. Fans are beginning to finally see and appreciate just exactly what Prior had intended all along. A thinking man’s horror film. One that offers enough scares to keep the story moving along, while also allowing time to think about what is on the screen. This is how cult classics are born and The Empty Man certainly has the pedigree for that.
The Empty Man can now be seen on HBO Max. Give it a try; you may find yourself a new favorite horror film.