Updated: Oct 7, 2021
The first night, you hear him. The second night, you see him. The third night, he finds you.
How to describe this strange genre bending horror epic? Like a mix of It Follows, Prisoners and Lovecraft, this 2.5 hour surprise is nothing like the trailer & tagline would have you believe, less Slenderman / urban legend (although it is that too) & instead a journey that takes in adventure horror (the fantastic Himalayan prologue is its own mini-movie) / cult & folk horror before winding up in the realm of cosmic horror. Plus it's a detective story that is also interested in identity, free will, destiny—almost a meeting point between Lovecraft & Phillip K Dick as directed by David Fincher (the director David Pryor has worked under Fincher for years).The fact his got made at all is a wonder, never mind the ordeal (3 years) it took to get to the screen, not helped at all by Fox’s merger with Disney—though I wonder if that may have helped the film, as there was originally a 90 min cut apparently, which would’ve been far less interesting.
After the unsettling ‘90s set opening, we find ourselves in modern day Missouri with a spate of teenagers going missing after playing the Empty Man game which involves blowing on a bottle on a bridge. James Badge Dale is hard drinking ex-cop James Lasombra with a personal connection to the case and is drawn into the long endless chasm of myth, religion and ancient deities.
First thing, the movie is genuinely creepy, from the teens on the old bridge at night to a freakish cult attack in the woods to the finale, the tension is thickened unnerving, even when he plot threatens to collapse under the ambitious ideas it’s wrestling with.
And while I don’t think it quite manages to reconcile the different tones & threads into a 100% satisfying whole, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. The Empty Man could become a Donnie Darko-esque cult classic in years to come as people come back to try & make sense of the labyrinthine plot or just to wallow in the expertly crafted spiral into cosmic dread. Not for everyone, but very much for me.
4.5 giant Himalayan skeletons out of 5.