Friday 6 November 2020

The Empty Man (2020) - Movie Review

A few years ago, I looked at a film with the immediately-mockable name of The Bye Bye Man. I found myself in a bit of an odd situation after watching it as, while it initially caught my attention through contemporary critics lampooning the shit out of it, I ended up struggling to figure out if I hated it or not. Yeah, the acting was weak, the horror cred of the overall production was limp at best, and most of what it had to offer was watered-down material from other, better entries in the genre… but to this day, there’s still something about its approach to a supernatural killer that appeals to the kookier part of my brain.

I bring all this up because this film left me with a similar reaction, where I feel like I’m still having an argument with myself if this is a uniquely cool take on psycho-horror, or if it’s just an overcooked and under-seasoned casserole of a film.

Let’s start with the production values, which I am the least conflicted about out of any part of this feature: On a technical level, this is outstanding. While the editing can dip into Rob Cohen overload territory at times, Andrew Buckland and writer/director David Prior add a lot of trippy and psychedelic texture to the film purely through the cuts made. This is aided by Anastos N. Michos’ cinematography, which finds a decent meeting point between the police procedural, cult horror, and cerebral creature feature aspects of the plot with the framing and imagery used.

But the leader of the pack is easily the soundtrack by Christopher Young and Lustmord, who bring a real Akira Yamaoka vibe to the proceedings and, regardless of anything else I’m going to follow this paragraph up with, the sound design of this thing kept my heart rate elevated throughout.

Honestly, the film also gets some easy points in its favour just through the casting of James Badge Dale, one of the more unsung actors in the industry today, in the lead as a retired cop looking into the urban legend of the titular boogieman. While his affable demeanour ends up sabotaging the film after a while (more on that in a bit), his charisma combined with his palpable reactions to the weird shit happening around him managed to keep my attention through all the twists and turns.

Of course, that’s all presentation; the actual meat on the production’s bones is where the internal debate starts to kick in. It’s also where the earlier comparison to The Bye Bye Man starts to take on thematic form, as the idea behind the resident creature is pretty similar to what they had in mind. And honestly, this one goes a step further in fleshing out the Empty Man as a result of his victims being unable to stop thinking about him.

It delves into areas of cult ideology and tulpas (basically ideas that are concentrated on by enough people for a long enough time that they take on material form), and it finds a decent way of adapting the original graphic novel considering how open-ended its conclusion was. In Cullen Bunn’s source material, he used the Empty Man as a metaphor for religious and cultish zealotry; a kind of thought virus that served as a critique of organised religion and televangelism especially.

However, nothing nearly as Lovecraftian ends up appearing in this, to the point where even though I was able to keep up with the concepts behind a lot of the ideas presented, it all wound up collapsing into itself like a black hole by film’s end. I technically understood what was going on, and yet I found myself utterly lost. Having read these extremely heady ideas explained in comics like the original Empty Man as well as Doktor Sleepless and quite a few Vertigo novels, this basically comes across like a really smart and rather ambitious idea that isn’t being told in a lucid-enough way to make it stick.

This is likely a result of the pacing and tone, the two restraints that hold the rest of the production back. Even for a feature that breaks the two-hour mark, this is both painfully slow and not making proper use of that time to establish the lore and the connective tissue between the Candyman-esque urban legend it begins with and the L. Ron Hubbard-adjacent mass conspiracy it ends with. All of that time is devoted to building up atmosphere, which admittedly is done really well… but it ultimately makes me think that some of that time would’ve been put to better use by detailing anything other than the metaphysical jargon.

Then there’s the tone, which… okay, last comparison to Bye Bye Man, but one of the reasons why I was initially conflicted about it is that I didn’t find it nearly as laughable as everyone else seemed to. Maybe it’s because my intrigue over that core concept kept me invested, but I didn’t see it as meme-worthy as my contemporaries. This film, though? While I’m able to take the film seriously as fiction in regards to its headier ideas regarding the power of mind and all that, it felt like I was taking it more seriously than the film itself did. It fumbles the transition between the sceptical perspective of the lead and the horrifying realisation that all of this is for real, one of the most basic aspects of this kind of supernatural horror flick, which in turn pulled a lot of the engagement out of it for me.

I can definitely see this catching on in the same way that A Cure For Wellness seems to have, in that it is a horror film unlike an awful lot of its competition. However, my own inability to recommend it is also for a lot of the same reasons as A Cure For Wellness: It’s a major case of style over substance, not to mention being quite derivative in its content (the spectre of The Ring looms heavy over the story, along with the other films I’ve mentioned throughout this review), where the intent to tap into cerebral horror falls short because of how haphazard the script ultimately is. It’s stretched too thin to be as gripping as it needs to be, and it’s too goofy to take as seriously as I would’ve liked.

David Prior could prove to be a genuine talent in this genre, showing a lot of promise here for his first attempt at a feature-length narrative film, but there’s some definite growing pains to get past first.

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