Prior: The Empty Man (2020)
By the time it reached streaming screens in 2021, The Empty Man was so buried that it might as well have never existed. Although filming wrapped in 2017, 21st Century Fox didn’t release it before they were acquired by the Walt Disney Company in early 2019. Realising that this type of horror didn’t really sit with their brand, Disney refrained from promoting or publicising it in any really sustained way, meaning very few people had heard of it by the time it hit movie screens in late 2020. Add to that the limited attendance of the COVID-19 pandemic, and you have a perfect storm of obscurity, which is a pity, since this is easily one of the most terrifying films of the decade, if not the century. Over time, it’s destined to become a cult classic, and already seems to have gained a strong following from users online. In time, too, the obscurity of its production will probably become a part of its mythos, since the film itself feels like an arcane and mysterious object that has dropped onto streaming services with no real context – an emissary from the yawning abysses of nothingness that drive so much of the horror here.
Directed masterfully by David Prior, The Empty Man is an adaptation of the graphic novel series by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey, but makes some major departures for the sake of condensing six issues into a feature-length film (eight more issues came out after the film was finished). Even then, it clocks in at over two hours, but it more than justifies the sprawl, rotating through a swathe of horror genres, and estranging us from them all in turn. Good horror films are usually suspenseful, but rarely this terrifying – genuinely terrifying – as Prior, who also wrote the screenplay, stitches genres we think we know into a great cosmic tapestry, producing a kind of Nietzschean horror in which the abyss comes alive, and stares back at us.
Structurally, The Empty Man almost plays as two self-contained films, both of which describe the same three-day process, but at different paces. In the first, we follow a group of American hikers in Bhutan, who discover a bizarre skeleton in a crevasse. After one of the party falls into a deep trance, the rest are haunted by a series of sounds and images, causing all of them to die except the entranced member. We then shift to Missouri, where policeman James Lasombra, played by James Badge Dale, is investigating the disappearance of a local girl, who reputedly invoked the Empty Man, an urban legend, before she went missing. According to folklore, blowing a bottle on a bridge summons the Empty Man, which is also what happened in Bhutan, where Paul, the catatonic hiker, played by Aaron Poole, blew into a Buddhist wind instrument while crossing a bridge. In Bhutan, it was a rope bridge, and in Missouri, it’s the Chain of Rocks Bridge, but in both cases the result seems to have been the same, even if we don’t yet know exactly what the Empty Man is, or if he’s indigenous to Bhutan or the States.
In a more conventional film, you might expect a pretty neat transition between the Buhtan film and the American film. We might find out, for example, that the police officer is the husband of one of the mountaineers who died, or that they all came from the same small town. However, Prior eschews any linear transition, leaving us to speculate on how the two parts of the film connect, until we find out, late in the piece, that 23 years have elapsed between the events they describe. All we do know is that the story in Missouri is likely to turn out as terrifying as the story in Bhutan, overlaying the action with a grim sense of doom and fatalism. Yet this never entirely dominates the film’s palette, since part of the brilliance of The Empty Man is how fluidly it moves between different horror registers, channelling them all into a more cosmic terror. In particular, this is a great example of investigative horror, and the supernatural procedural, since James’ police work offsets the more abstract elements of the film, turning it into a mystery as much as a straight work of horror, which makes it scarier.
In order to capture that cosmic scope, Prior, like the graphic novel authors, opts for a register we rarely see in American cinema – Buddhist horror. The closest we get is probably the Orientalist fringes of 80s horror, and the films inspired by it, but even that is light years away from the Gothic Buddhism on display here. When the mountain climbers first encounter the Empty Man, or the traces of the Empty Man, they appear to be the remains of some arcane Buddhist ritual that has remained concealed in the mountains for hundreds of years. In a sense, this is what the hikers have come for, since, while they’re partly motivated by the challenge of the mountain, their trip also plays as a pseudo-Buddhist pilgrimage, especially when we learn that it took place 23 years ago, in the late 1990s, when films like Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet created a new kind of Buddhist chic for American audiences. In that sense, the mountains seem to reproach them for their Orientialist outlook, providing them with a Buddhist entity that is more alien and more “other” than anything they could have conceived.
At the same time, the first symptom of the Empty Man is a trancelike state that doesn’t look all that different from Buddhist meditation practices, especially as they’ve been received and domesticated in the West. Even the Empty Man’s name evokes mindfulness – emptying out the mind – producing a swathe of meditators back in Missouri who will sit in the lotus position at any time, in any place. The Empty Man thus forms part of a recent trend of horror films that focus on the submerged Gothicism of positive psychology, self-help and the relentless quest for transcendence that drives Westerners to climb mountains in the first place. At times, it reminded me of the Buddhist horror of Twin Peaks: The Return, which also revolves around tulpas, thought-forms, and mind-made bodies, but the clearest point of reference here is Gore Verbinski, who not only perfected the supernatural procedural with The Ring, but drew on the horror of positive psychology with A Cure for Wellness, which also revolves around a mountain retreat, albeit with a very different landscape and directorial sensibility.
Like A Cure for Wellness, The Empty Man also introduces a cult, headed by Arthur Parsons, played by Stephen Root. This American cult claims to follow the teachings of the Empty Man, who Parsons understands as an embodiment of “the great binding nothingness of things.” Worshipping the Empty Man means taking up as little space as possible – “How much less space can you occupy?” – both physically and intellectually, since the first step in accepting the Empty Man is draining the mind of all ambition for rational meaning. At first, Arthur frames this in familiar New Age terms, telling his followers that “the Empty Man is a meditation – a manifestation of hidden energies.” As James spends more time around the cult, however, this devolves into a more radical scepticism of meaning – an embrace of the opacity of all things, in which only the sensory here-and-now is worthy of any real attention.
No surprise, then, that the main symptom of the Empty Man himself (or itself) is a heightened mindfulness. We learn, gradually, that people have three days to live after summoning the Empty Man. On the first day they hear him, on the second day they see him, and on the third day they feel him, or become him, or become a part of him (this last stage is the most abstract). These are the three days we see unfold in the Bhutan prologue, as well as the three days that unfold, at a slower pace, after James blows into a bottle on the Chain of Rocks Bridge as part of his investigation. On the first two days, sound, and then sight, are magnified to the point where they completely overwhelm the cognitive capacities of the mind, in the same way that meditation tapes often encourage you to play close attention to sound, eyes closed, before you eventually return to the world with a heightened awareness of the other senses.
Both these days are terrifying, but the first day is perhaps a little more terrifying, just because it’s the first and most subliminal apprehension that we have of the Empty Man. During this first day, the Empty Man makes his victims acutely aware of sounds in their immediate environment – sounds that typically remain submerged just below the threshold of perception. Since all the dialogue is slightly mumbly, the film itself is poised right on the friges of audibility, meaning that you have to strain your ears to accommodate it, and become more audibly mindful just to understand it, which is also the first symptom of the Empty Man himself. Both the big discoveries, at the start of the Bhutan and Missouri narratives, emerge from just beneath the ground, or beneath the surface on which the characters are standing, turning the Empty Man into a vehicle for everything that remains just below our perception.
As a result, the Empty Man is most potent around bridges – and this film is full of evocative bridges, bridges of all kinds, as well as long corridors of space that act as surrogates for bridges, suspending us above echoey voids that extend much deeper than we initially imagine. You can’t see a bridge in this film without a looming sense of terror, while the first and second days of the Empty Man’s possession tend to revolve around bridges too, transforming them into self-contained auditory and visual disruptions of the film’s broader sensory field. In one of my favourite scenes, Nora Quail, the missing girl, played by Marin Ireland, lies on the surface of the Chain of Rocks Bridge, and closes one eye after another, as a pair of alternating POV shots shows us these two slightly different perspectives of the night sky. These are the first inchoate impressions of the Empty Man, who is already embedded in Nora’s ability to fracture her own perception. When they descend on James, these disruptions are so radical, and yet so subliminal, that they appear embedded in the very fabric of the film.
At first, James can only register this weird synergy between himself and the film around him as a “brain itch,” but in the final scenes he learns that he himself is a tulpa, a fabrication of the Empty Man, and in some sense came into existence at the very moment we first saw him. Just as the Empty Man’s disruptions are built into the substance of the film, so James’ auditory and visual symptoms turn out to be emissaries from a non-diegetic plane that has been directed by an entity beyond his understanding. In that sense, the film feels self-directed, or generated by the Empty Man himself, meaning we never have any real critical distance from the Empty Man – no way to fully or finally process him. This weird autonomy that the film accrues makes for some of the most terrifying scenes I’ve seen this century – scenes when the entire film appears to shift, take stock, and look at you; scenes where the abyss seems to momentarily take the shape of the film, or inhabit Prior’s scenes, and stare right back at us.
While various terrifying images are attached to the Empty Man, then, he’s never fully anthropomorphised, or reduced to human terms. Instead, Prior evokes an exponentially expanding universe that the film can never quite contain – a profound alterity that James, and the audience, can never resolve. At the very moment at which James is confronted with his own implication in the Empty Man, Prior cuts to two scenes that take the various bridges of the film to their existential limit. In the first, James flashes back to an earlier scene, and realises that he was standing beneath a bridge that he was also standing on top of. In the first, James flashes back to an event that putatively occurred before the narrative started, but which he now recognises may be fabricated – an event that involves a car careening into the space between two different bridges, hanging for a beat in the film’s most transitional space. In both these scenes, James’ identity, and our own linear sense of past and present, dissolves into the sensory dispersal of the film’s bridges, and the emptiness that lies just beneath them.
Between these two bridges, the film’s texture finally involutes into the agency of the Empty Man himself, abstracting into a series of closing images that are far more terrifying, tonally, than a more conventional conclusion could ever be. It’s rare, in this age, for horror films to produce such a profound sense of otherness; perhaps the best approximation is the twist of Alien: Covenant – that the xenomorph was created by a divine entity to prove its supreme perfection. The Empty Man performs a similar kind of theodicy here, evoking, in its final stages, the absolute otherness of the divine, the spiritual, the noospheric, or whatever you might call it, along with the otherness of the sub-perceptual, post-cinematic static that emerges whenever the Empty Man is on the cusp of manifesting itself. In his most cogent and direct statement, Arthur, the cult leader, tells James he must literalise Nietzsche’s abyss to envisage the Empty Man, and so the Empty Man is finally the abyss made flesh, or almost-flesh – an alterity of “other kinds of minds” that will haunt you long after it’s almost-finished.
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