“You can’t indict the cosmos,” a grave-faced cop (Ron Canada) declares about halfway through The Empty Man. No, no you really can’t. But boy, does lead character James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) put up a damn fight. The sense of hopelessness in this film is comparable to films like Aliens simply because of how relentless it is and despite a few problems, we are pulled in to a story where instead of Xenomorphs, characters face a more theological adversary and folk tale that messes with people's minds rather than their lower intestines.
The movie opens with a group hiking in the mountains. Unspeakable things occur as required by horror movie law, but it’s handled with skill. Perhaps my inherited fear of heights was played upon when the camera focused on a creaking bridge. Or maybe it’s the music by Christopher Young and Brian Lustmord informing us that we are in for a dreaded time as it reverberates off the walls. Either way, the opening takes its time before jumping ahead to Missouri where we meet James; a former detective turned security shop owner that’s dealing with a great deal of grief.
When his friend’s daughter goes missing, James begins investigating, running across more and more clues about The Empty Man that teens tempt each other to summon on bridges. And when I say ‘clues’ I mean there are many obscure and thought-provoking clues. People have been quick to label this film as a cheap knockoff of films like Slender Man (which isn’t exactly the gold standard) and such comparisons make me raise my eyebrows. When you learn what the Empty Man actually is, you might realize it’s something that’s existed in legends way before the early 2000s.
Now don’t get me wrong, this movie is confusing at times. It has many long speeches that you could debate for days, and having not read the comic book series it’s based on, I was baffled. But more importantly, I was still engaged and at times, shaken. A series of jump-scares is intercut with brutality, and then the philosophy talks begin to pile on when James discovers a sinister cult. It’s almost overwhelming, but then again, the main character is quite overwhelmed by the time the movie ends; and if nothing else, we are right there with him. It seems appropriate.
James Badge Dale plays the part well with the occasional smile and sense of humor; trying to remain light despite his struggles. Before bolting from danger, he just shifts and says, “yeah…no.” I think we’d all react the same. The rest of the cast steps up and the characters have struggles; some that are addressed, and others that I am curious about. Perhaps upon re-watching it, I won’t find new satisfying insights; but I will still be enjoying a competent horror movie that takes its time. Not for everyone, but for some, a good horror surprise for Halloween.
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