David Prior’s film sets itself apart from the generally rushed Hollywood genre film by allowing itself a 22-minute prologue that is remarkably effective (even if it adds up to the inflated 137-minute total). Four friends are hiking in Bhutan in 1995 when one of them hears a sound in the distance that only he can hear. He walks away, only to fall into a crevasse. A friend rushes rappelling down to find the young man sitting and staring at a terrifying skeleton. He gives him a warning that has not been heard – “If you touch me, you will die” – before he becomes catatonic. His three friends take him back to a nearby cabin, then things really weird. The prologue to “The Empty Man” is an effective short in itself, arguably more so than the rest of the film, and it sets the stage well in terms of tone, even if it is forgiving for an already long enough film.
Cut to the meat of Missouri history in 2018. Enter James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), who is celebrating his birthday alone. Flashes of memory and conversations detail the trauma James now lives with after losing his wife and child in a car crash. Her only friend appears to be a neighbor named Nora (Marin Ireland), who comes to see James when her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) goes missing. The investigation seems timid because Amanda is over 18 and can do whatever she wants, but James can tell there is something more, and not just because there is a message in the blood that says, “The empty man made me do it.”
James finds a friend of Amanda’s named Davara (Samantha Logan), who tells him that their group attempted to summon The Empty Man recently. The story goes that if you blow into an empty bottle on an empty bridge, the empty man will come to you. The first night you will hear it. The second night you will see it. The third night you will feel it. Of course, the legend of The Empty Man owes a lot to other stories like Bloody Mary, Candyman, and Slender Man, but Prior’s film quickly goes from a traditional boogeyman story to something much stranger as James discovers that a people cult may be involved in all of this (including a leader played by Stephen Root). And then he learns that he really has no idea what’s going on as “The Empty Man” eschews a traditional jump scare structure by becoming more and more surreal, eventually connecting with this prologue in such a way. unexpectedly, and come to a crazy conclusion that I am not sure it makes sense. But give me a movie that derails more than a movie that ends predictably perfectly every time.