Things slipped through the cracks during the last year. It wasn’t hard, considering that what was beneath our feet often seemed to be more gap than ground. What that meant in the world of movies ranged from Bad Boys for Life and Sonic the Hedgehog topping the annual box office to Warner Bros. upending traditional distribution in 2021. But with a bit more perspective and focus, COVID-19’s more specific impact on movies in and surrounding 2020 becomes a particularly compelling piece of modern archeology. Rappelling down into those cracks, headlamp illuminating the dark, you find films that either adapted to their circumstance or were failed by tradition—becoming lost artifacts mere months after being brand new. One fascinating entry in the latter category is David Prior’s The Empty Man, a horror movie that never had a chance at being a first-run hit and—thanks to its oddity not only as an unlikely, mismarketed studio film but as one dumped mid-pandemic—deserves (and has achieved) cult status less than six months after its release.
From the start, everything about The Empty Man is misleading. Its title sounds like the absolutely terrible Bloody Mary-esque The Bye Bye Man or the botched adaptation of Slender Man, where spooky too-long shadow dudes creep up on some doltish teens. Its equally mediocre trailer did nothing to dissuade folks from that assumption leading up to its October 2020 release:
Those bad high school urban legend films (that this trailer is cut oh-so-specifically to evoke) don’t usually stray from the 90-minute mark. Even Candyman, maybe the best and most ambitious example of this type of film, is barely 100 minutes. The Empty Man’s 137-minute runtime clearly has more to do than kill off a couple of kids for failing to be superstitious enough. Rather than falling into that traditional type of stock schlock, The Empty Man follows a troubled ex-cop investigating the root causes of an incident that could’ve been the entire plot of one of those movies. “We knew we weren’t making that movie and nobody wanted to make that movie,” writer/director/editor Prior told Thrillist. “But it turns out, the people who inherited the movie wanted that kind of movie.”
Prior wasn’t even making a movie all that concerned with its source material. Ironically, the 2014 Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey graphic novel upon which The Empty Man is (loosely) based describes the Empty Man phenomenon as a “pandemic,” where the diseased must be quarantined. Or is it a cult, encouraging those under their sway to kill others and themselves? Is it a police procedural or an apocalyptic horror story? That collision of genres and forms and that lack of easy answers carries over to the film, even if the specific narrative gets pretty damn far from the comic. It’s another irony that Prior’s debut would get a trailer like the one for Ravenous (which Prior calls a “piss-poor representation of the movie”), the film that gave him his start in the DVD business.
Prior’s career has been all over the place (he was an Alien in Alien: Resurrection), but he’s mostly a mainstay of behind-the-scenes docs and special features. Some of that legacy is present in The Empty Man via longtime collaborator Keith Clark, who was brought onto the feature in the editorial department, but really, it’s the kinds of movies that Prior was interested in digging into on the DVD side of things that best speak to his feature debut. See Prior’s oversight on many David Fincher films’ home releases. “I think the reason I like Fincher’s work so much is that he’s doing the kind of work I aspire to do,” Prior said.
It makes sense that the ever-expanding, ever-spiraling photos-and-folders paranoid conspiracy of The Empty Man can feel a bit like getting sucked into the kind of heady, hyper-specific hell that festers in the underbellies of Zodiac, Se7en or Mindhunter. That ‘70s thriller structure, dedicated to the paper trail, merges in The Empty Man with a downright otherworldly horror (used here in the literal sense, as opposed to terror) aesthetic that’s sheer scope makes a mockery of the movie’s shoe-leather detective work. Prior’s other fiction work before tackling The Empty Man, the short AM1200, also includes Fincher riffs (The Game pops its head into the staticky Lovecraft fun), a down-to-earth hero ready to say “no fuckin’ way” to obvious horror situations and a similarly impressive map-to-road match cut:
You get a sense of Prior’s great timing in AM1200 as he works through a few pet interests that just happen to turn up again. Naturally, The Empty Man also thrives in deconstructing familiar horror—there’s a reason, after all, its kids attend Jacques Derrida High School. On top of all that, when Stephen Root shows up as a leader of a mysterious and definitely evil organization (a role he filmed only a few months after shooting Get Out, where he appears in a similar capacity), you just know shit’s about to go down.
But even The Empty Man’s start is a delightful little horror film all its own, a mythological amuse-bouche set on snowy Bhutan peaks where set design and some solidly naturalistic acting sell the scares. Great! Solid. Sold. And then the movie keeps going, as if to literally push past your expectations. Its narrative evolves into something increasingly strange and engaging. It’s like A Cure for Wellness, another cult favorite, in its dedication to piling on an investigator’s hallucinogenic obsession and repulsion as he finds himself suddenly so deep that climbing back out—or, perhaps, out for the first time—proves impossible. Prior’s grasp of tone and savvy subversion of different modern monster tropes, alongside a staggering and committed James Badge Dale performance, position the film as one that understands and appreciates studio horror movies, but has much bigger things on its mind. In short, it rules.
That unconventional and unexpected narrative scope (at least from studio horror fare) could’ve had The Empty Man finding its audience after its initial run even if things weren’t compounded by larger industry complications and forces of nature. But they were. Released by 20th Century Studios (after weathering the change of name and guard that came when Disney bought the studio in March 2019), The Empty Man lost its championing executive in the middle of production, hurried its edit to meet tax rebate deadlines, got dropped into a theatrical release plan smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic that even left Tenet (a film nobody would ever shut up about) limping, and suffered “a bunch of idiocy that’s probably best left for a book that [Prior will] write when [he stops] caring what anybody thinks.” It had nearly no promotion and didn’t screen for critics, which meant no pre-release reviews. It was released directly into an open grave.
And, after coming out a few months later on VOD in January, The Empty Man is already starting to see a grassroots reassessment. It’s the pandemic equivalent to a ‘90s film that flopped at the box office, but found new life on home video, becoming a Blockbuster perennial thanks to word of mouth or particularly good box art. Digital releases have certainly helped hard-to-market films find their audience before, but COVID’s particularities meant the timeline was accelerated for The Empty Man. Either time stands still or flies by under pandemic protocol. Here it was the latter, with the flop plummeting immediately and finding its resuscitating champions nearly as quickly.
Presently, the film exists in the alluring Rotten Tomato range that enterprising genre fans know well: That 50-70% percentile that, unlike most scores on the website, actually hints at the complexity hiding behind the number. So many beloved films live in that mixed and muddled middle ground, where ambition and execution so rarely align. The Empty Man deserves to be discussed in similarly obsessive tones and, despite the best efforts of 20th Century Studios, it is finding those willing to discuss it. The Empty Man is a remarkable debut made more remarkable for its languished release and, once finally unleashed onto an unsuspecting and unprepared world, its accelerated trajectory to the fringes. For a scary movie about cults, shared thoughts and the potential power of combined will, well, it’s all the more fitting.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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