The shadow of H.P. Lovecraft falls heavily on The Empty Man – written and directed by David Prior, from a comic book by Cullen Bunn – and not just in a few brief flashes of things unnameable, amorphous and unwelcome. This adopts the structure of ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ as separate stories wind together into a revelation of coming apocalypse … or transformation … or apotheosis. Most Lovecraftian movies just throw in a bunch of tentacles and namedrop the Necronomicon or Arkham, but this abjures that stuff and goes with the author’s patented evocation of cosmic dread and (sometimes) wonder. A few films have gone this route before – fringe horror items like Stalker and Zeder and recent genre-benders like The Endless, Under the Silver Lake and Sator – but it was a risk to adopt this approach (at 137 minutes yet) in a marketplace dominated by Conjuring spinoffs and remakes of Stephen King properties.
On its strange route, The Empty Man (onscreen title The Em ty Man) sometimes runs in parallel with the sort of horror films you find in multiplexes, then hares off in less obvious directions. In a 22-minute prologue, four young Americans of the type often found in films are backpacking in Bhutan in 1995 (ominous captions state ‘Day One’, ‘Day Two’ etc). Paul (Aaron Poole) falls into a cave where he is struck numb before an idol-like mutant/alien/human skeleton, then passes on some sort of curse to his companions – who meet horrible fates in snowy wastes.
Then, in 2018, the ‘Day One’ thing kicks off again in a chilly-looking American city mostly played by South African locations. James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), an ex-cop with a tragic backstory, finds himself acting as a private eye. Widow Nora Quail (Marin Ireland) – with whom James has history – is concerned by the disappearance of her teeenage daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova), who has scrawled ‘the Empty Man made me do it’ in blood on a mirror. James interviews Davara (Samantha Logan), a terrified friend of the missing girl, and is told about a Candyman/Bloody Mary-style summoning ritual (a convincing urban legend variant) a bunch of kids have performed after dark on a bridge by whistling into a bottle. Here, The Empty Man mimics the form of a creepypasta horror (cf Slenderman, The Bye Bye Man) as teens are stalked by a raggedy form – which we glimpsed in a blizzard in the prologue – and driven to extreme self-harm (Paul was also a cutter).
There’s an unforgettably grim discovery on the underside of the bridge – but, following the clues, James widens the investigation to look into the Pontifex Institute, which seems to be a copy of the Church of Scientology. A bit too much exposition is delivered by looking up Wikipedia pages, which is a common flaw of contemporary thrillers, but we do get some proper footwork, with sinister hints (a questionnaire given out to Pontefex applicants is wittily chilling) and suspicious characters (including Stephen Root as a plausible cult speaker).
Loitering on the fringes of seminars or rituals, he wonders whether he’s carrying out detective work or unwittingly participating in some grand design. Why do Pontifex cultists sneak into a hospital to worship a coma patient? Is there a mocking significance to the fact that of the files the cult keeps on all the key players the red one on James is empty?
The way a private eye plot winds into a conspiracy horror story definitely echoes Angel Heart, though the solution to that mystery was simple beside the last act revelations trotted out here. Apparently, the home stretch was too much for studio suits, who sidetracked this straight to streaming – and it’s the sort of finish that makes you want to rewatch key sections of the film again to see if it really played fair. Prior, making a feature debut after a career in BluRay extras, crafts a very special style of low-key horror – it’s got a touch of David Lynch but goes for a drabber look even as it stages disturbing sequences of shadowy cultists acting in lockstep like an evil dance-mime troupe.
Prior has a real knack for getting a consistent tone out of a solid cast – Dale, one of the most underrated leading men of the moment, tamps down his natural charisma to play a careworn drudge who nevertheless wont’ give up on the case, and he’s surrounded by slightly off-centre types with fascinating haircuts (Frolova and Joel Courtney especially). Typical of the film’s fragmented approach to genre is a score by Christopher Young (Hellraiser) and Lustmord (First Reformed).