- The Empty Man
- Directed by David Prior
- Written by David Prior, based on the comic series by Cullen Bunn
- Starring James Badge Dale, Stephen Root and Marin Ireland
- Classification R; 137 minutes
These are dark days for moviegoers. Not only because more and more theatres are being closed by regional health authorities – despite no cinemas in the world reporting COVID-19 transmissions – but because the fresh big-screen offerings are so dire.
For those who can be possibly enticed to leave their homes, recent theatrical releases fall into three categories: catalogue titles that cost studios almost nothing to distribute (two 1993 productions, Hocus Pocus and The Nightmare Before Christmas, were among this past weekend’s top North American earners); low-budget art-house-skewing dramas that wouldn’t get nearly as many multiplex screens in normal times (the Richard Jenkins-starring films The Last Shift and Kajillionaire, Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor); and C-grade embarrassments that Hollywood would typically be dumping in the slow months of January and August (The War with Grandpa, Honest Thief, 2 Hearts).
Regrettably, but predictably, the new horror film The Empty Man qualifies for that last category. If you’ve never heard of the movie until this very moment, don’t be too upset. Shot way back in 2017 and placed on a shelf inside 20th Century Fox’s vault ever since, the film is being marched by new Fox owner Disney into theatres this week with the most muted marketing campaign in recent memory.
Maybe Disney hopes that the few souls who venture out will be intrigued by The Empty Man’s Halloween-timed trappings, and not dissuaded by withering reviews. (The film wasn’t made available to critics, but because I’m a crazy person, I trekked out to Oakville, Ont., to catch it at a nearly deserted Cineplex.) If that was indeed the strategy, then congratulations, I guess? Because The Empty Man is indeed a disposable, ultimately best-forgotten movie.
Or rather, two movies. Unusually long for a horror film, The Empty Man opens with a semi-self-contained story, in which a group of Americans hiking in the Himalayas accidentally awakens one of those pesky ancient evils. The expensive-looking segment is effective in a Cabin Fever-meets-Everest kind of way but, at 20-something-minutes long and too loosely connected to the main narrative thread, unnecessary and indulgent. Writer-director David Prior, adapting Cullen Bunn’s graphic novel, might have an epic vision in mind, but his ambitions are subverted by what follows. Which is, mostly, a standard suburban-America boogeyman thriller.
This second, more familiar story follows the loner ex-cop James Lasombra (that last name is Spanish for “darkness,” just to make clear how subtle things will be), who is investigating the disappearance of a local teen girl. As Lasombra looks deeper into the case, and its connection to the urban legend of the titular monster – who doesn’t boast much of a legend beyond “summon him by blowing into a bottle and three days later he’ll kill ya” – the movie gets buried under standard jump-scare moments and quick-cut shots of carnage. Eventually, mercifully, the story becomes more enjoyably surreal with the introduction of a Scientology-esque organization. But by the point Stephen Root’s cult-leader villain mutters the Seinfeldian observation, “What is an abyss?,” all but the most hardened of horror fans will have already disengaged.
James Badge Dale, who stars as Lasombra, can be a compelling leading man when matched by semi-smart material (I’m still mourning the long-ago cancellation of AMC’s think-tank thriller series Rubicon). Yet here he’s given precious little to do but furrow his brow and mutter to himself. Buddy, I feel you.
Producers couldn’t have picked a better title, though. After I left my Friday afternoon screening, attended by a whopping two other people, I felt far from satisfied. Empty, you might say.
The Empty Man is now playing in theatres across Canada, dependent on local health guidelines
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