HBO Max: The Empty Man

What a waste of over two hours.

If you read my prior movie reviews you already know I generally hold the horror genre in deep contempt, and The Empty Man is precisely why I have that opinion. It’s also why I don’t read the film’s length before I watch it.

The Empty Man starts out on a really strong note, as the film kicks off with a 22 minute prologue set in 1995 Bhutan. Four friends are hiking when one, distracted by a far off noise only he can hear, falls into a cavern. His friends find him in a near-vegetative state muttering at what looks like a demonic shrine. He warns his friend “if you touch me you’ll die” and then everything goes sour from there. The pacing and atmosphere of this opening scene is fantastic.

And then we jump forward to 2018 and the film becomes crap.

James Lasombra (James Dale) is a lonely ex-cop with a broken past and a ruined family celebrating his birthday alone in a depressing restaurant. He finally finds purpose in life when his neighbor Nora (Marin Ireland) comes to him for help when her daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) goes missing. The police don’t seem to be interested in helping find a missing adult despite the blood smeared message “The Empty Man made me do it” on her bathroom mirror. Granted this is 2018 Missouri, the police have better things to do like destroy rape kits.

He discovers that Amanda got into some cult nonsense surrounding The Empty Man, and with her friends engaged in a ritual where if one blows into a bottle that they find on a bridge at night while thinking about The Empty Man, he’ll show up in three days and get you. Kinda like the child of Bloody Mary and Freddy Kreuger. Do demons get to choose what empowers them? I’d tie my demon powers to whenever someone unironically worships bacon like an asshole, I’d have more power than the cosmic tortoise in an afternoon.

The Empty Man is a film that requires some context to understand why it’s a big pile of crap. Imagine taking a professional chef and ordering him to make you a spaghetti bolognaise. Five minutes into cooking he is asked to instead make pasta primavera. Five minutes later this dish is now supposed to be lasagna. After three minutes of starting on that, you punch the chef in the face, throw everything he’s made up until that point into a bowl, and try to eat it.

Needless to say the dish is going to be awful, and it’s not the chef’s fault. A mishmash of half-baked ideas and incomplete projects. The Empty Man is one of those films that suffered from continuous reshoots, recuts, lost its producer, went through a corporate merger, screened a bad version to test audiences, and they released a rough edit to theaters. In short you really can’t blame director David Prior for 20th Century Studios maiming and disfiguring the project and then tossing its bloodied corpse into the street for everyone to see. If you didn’t know that the film suffered repeated production issues, it’s pretty obvious just from watching it.

It makes judging The Empty Man on its merits difficult when you know that the film was so heavily butchered and released unfinished. Like being asked to grade the calculus final exam for a kid who had a stroke halfway through the test and being told you still have to mark down for unanswered questions like nothing happened.

James’ journey to find the answers takes him through more than 90 minutes of crappy horror cliches. The spoopy camp out by the lake, the cult masquerading as a new-age Scientology-esque religion secretly brainwashing teenagers and making them worship the Empty Man. There’s some jump scares, more cliche, and after far too long the movie is over with a crappy and unsatisfying ending. Oh and there’s a scene with cultists walking around a big campfire and it’s so stupid I almost turned the film off.

While movies of this caliber tend to be terrible, they’re also generally short. An hour and a half is the perfect length for a mediocre horror movie. The Empty Man tacks on another 45 minutes. You can tell that the movie had ambition, and that the ambition died on the cutting room floor. The twist near the end and the ending itself feels like the product of realizing that corporate wants the final cut tomorrow, your desired ending needed another two weeks, and you need to figure out something and shoot it right now because the movie is going out whether or not you’ve put that finishing touch on it.

There are traces of brightness underneath the rubble that is The Empty Man, but at two hours and fifteen minutes it’s a painful chore to get through. Maybe one day the film will be salvaged via a director’s cut or a “what should have been” spiritual replacement. But that is not today.

Rating: D-

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