Working Through The Queue: The Empty Man (2020)
A couple months back I had a random memory flash that The Empty Man comic series was supposed to be a movie as part of Boom Studios' attempts to get more comics optioned. The thought quickly evaporated as I figured that Covid pushed it into limbo, not realizing that it actually was released already in October 2020. I turned on HBO Max a couple weeks ago though and bam, there it is. Turns out it was finished in 2017 and the studio just sat on it and then plopped it out in October because why not? It be a horror movie for the time of spoopy. With little to no marketing it quickly left the box office to no fanfare and a bunch of bad reviews.
I should note that I never even finished the original Cullen Bunn and Vanessa Del Rio comic series released back in 2014. I read the first two issues and thought they were interesting, but as a comic store manager I would often read an issue or two to get the tone so I would know what I was ordering and then move on. That being said though, I read enough to know that the film diverges quite a bit from the source material. The Empty Man in the comics was a virus that caused insanity and followed a pair of FBI Agents working a related case that led to cult activity and more. The movie instead follows an ex-cop who begins to investigate the disappearance of his neighbor's daughter.
The Empty Man is turned into more of a boogie man horror story with your typical group of idiot kids summoning him by saying his name three times while blah blah blah enter made up rules. The core push is that the entity can be heard the first night after the summoning, then is seen the second night, and then it comes for you on the third night. Because......reasons?
It's an odd film in that it feels like a few concepts jammed together. It starts off with an interesting set-up and then wallows in the middle under modern day boogie man horror conventions (see Bye Bye Man. or, wait, maybe don't) and then sort of recoups itself a little as it develops a twist that elevates the haunting concept a little bit. I won't spoil what's behind the twist, but it does begin to play with a lot of identity horror wit
It's interesting, but I also don't want to say it was completely successful in pulling it off because there were enough minor conceptual loose ends that lingered for me. It's possible that's because the direct David Prior considers the theatrical release to be a rough cut, so there may be some missing concept elements floating in the developmental void.
The film seems to be developing a minor cult following itself, which is a little odd because while I thought it had some ok ideas, decent visuals, and some solid acting, ultimately it just didn't live up to it's full potential. Perhaps I've read too many Grant Morrison books for the movie's revelations to be too completely mind-blowing, or maybe the film's overall dreariness dulled the payoffs. Either way I felt like it was trying too hard to fit into a restrictive mold of modern horror tropes when it should have embraced its other horror sub-genres a little more.
I think the most interesting aspect for me is how this wasn't even really a flop, but nearly a non-entity in the world of comic adaptations. I don't recall any real chatter of note beyond the original light hype back in 2016 when production was initially announced, and I feel that it just faded away as the studio sat on the not-quite-finished product. I get the sense that someone in corporate was like, "Hey, we should probably release something in October but with Covid making everything nebulous let's not really try to support it, or spend any money, or like, care at all." Which is a little sad, because I get the feeling that if this was released closer to 2017 it would have had a slightly better chance as now it just feels kinda lost in the sea of generic horror films that are easy to ignore.
I would say that it's worth checking out to see some of the ideas at play, but go into it knowing it feels like bits are missing and that it has only the barest of connections to the source material. In the meantime I'll be waiting for Cullen Bunn to remake the film as writer/director/producer/caterer/bestboy/EmptyManwrangler. And Bunn plays every character. I don't say that because I think he's an egomaniac, I just think he's a prolific workhorse that can actually do it all and do it well.