The “creepy cult” subgenre of horror movies has been having a renaissance lately. Films like Hereditary (2018) and Midsommer (2019), both directed by Ari Aster, have breathed new life into a very familiar template. David Prior’s The Empty Man isn’t in the same league as those films, but is a very effective horror movie nonetheless.
The movie begins in 1995 with a group of clueless and entitled Americans hiking through Bhutan, where they stumble upon an ancient evil. Flash-forward to Missouri in 2018, where James (James Badge Dale), a former detective, looks into the disappearance of his young neighbor Amanda (Sasha Frolova). After her high school friends commit suicide, James visits an organization Amanda was familiar with, a Scientology stand-in named the Pontifex Institute. The more James learns about the Institute, the more nefarious the organization appears to be. Even more troubling is that the group appears to know all about him.
Writer-director Prior expertly combines the story’s many locations and disturbing visuals to build an overwhelming sense of dread. The acting is mainly serviceable, the exception being the wonderfully loopy Stephen Root (Barry) as a Pontifex lecturer. The Empty Man incorporates many horror movie themes, but is a creepy cult movie at its core. It doesn’t tie things together as perfectly as the aforementioned films, but it’s a good creepy cult movie regardless. Recommended.
On the first night, you hear him. On the second night, you see him. On the third night, he finds you.
The Empty Man (or TEM) starts off confidently and ambitiously, with a twenty minute prologue before the title card appears. Set in 1995, a foursome of handsome Americans (Greg, Fiona, Paul and Ruthie) hike through Ura Valley, Bhutan. (If you’ve never heard of Bhutan before, it’s a small Buddhist country located between India and China.) Paul hears a flue and stumbles upon an ancient skeletal figure in a crevice. Against Paul’s warnings, Greg hauls him out and the group take refuge in an abandoned house. The three examine Paul’s body for signs of physical trauma and find none. They do find a rustic flute in his hand. That night, Ruthie hears strange noises in the cabin but finds everyone sleeping soundly. On Day 2, after Greg and Fiona leave to find help, Ruthie sees a darkly shrouded figure outside the cabin. It doesn’t respond to her pleas for help, and instead runs towards her. Ruthie retreats back into the cabin and bolts the door, only to hear Greg and Fiona on the other side asking to be let in. On Day 3, Paul emerges from his state and leaves the cabin. The three find Paul sitting near a chasm and Greg angrily lashes out at him, blaming him for their misfortune. Ruthie, under the spell of Paul, kills Greg and Fiona, and then herself.
The movie jumps to Webster Mills, Missouri in 2018, where former detective turned security salesperson James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) pounds the pavement in search of missing neighbor Amanda (Sasha Frolova). She had spoken to James the day before, concerned over how he’s handling the death of his wife and son a year ago. (Answer: not great.) The two share a bond marked by tragedy, as Amanda’s father committed suicide several years ago. She proceeded to rattle off some self-actualization tenets, followed by a “secret truth” about how we can’t be hurt because nothing is real. After Amanda states that our thoughts originate outside ourselves, James admits he has no idea what she’s talking about. That’s OK, James. Everything will make sense to you (and the audience) in the end.
James speaks with Davara (Samantha Logan), one of Amanda’s friends at school. She describes a recent evening where Amanda goaded her friends into calling forth the Empty Man. (Peer pressure works on teenagers without fail.) James tries to question Amanda’s other friends, only to find they’ve committed suicide. In one of the movie’s more disturbing images, James finds Amanda’s friends hanging underneath a bridge. Davara is attacked and killed by the darkly shrouded figure introduced in the prologue, but her death looks like a suicide as well.
With his investigation into Amanda’s high school life hitting a dead end (pun intended), James delves into his remaining lead, an organization called the Pontifex Institute. At their downtown headquarters, James notices how the place is a magnet for young recruits. He attends a lecture/indoctrination given by Arthur Parsons (the wonderfully odd Stephen Root), who expands on the same cryptic self-actualization principles James heard from Amanda.
James looks around the building and stumbles on smaller groups of people doing strange things. One group chants in front of a black poster. Another group sitting in a darkened auditorium speaks in hushed tones. James confronts a younger member of the group, who tells him the group has a five hundred-year plan. James visits a cabin in the Ozarks and finds documentation of manifestations and a dossier on himself. The group appears to be targeting James for some reason, and his search for Amanda puts him increasingly in danger.
What I found interesting about TEM is how the story successfully merges several different horror movie themes together. At the outset, the movie comes off as a riff on what happens when entitled and oblivious Americans treat a foreign country and its culture like their personal playground. (Remember The Ruins?) After the prologue, TEM becomes a Film Noir, with James as the private detective searching for Amanda, the innocent girl who’s been abducted by evildoers. Additionally, Amanda’s friends took on the aspect of the typical “cursed teenagers”. In the last act, TEM reveals what the story has actually been about all along: a creepy cult movie.
Invariably, movies in the creepy cult genre promise the audience two things: a) disturbing scenes of the cult members doing inexplicable things, b) a big reveal at the end that explains the cult’s mysterious plan and how the protagonist fits into that plan. The best of the creepy cult movies, including Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Aster’s Hereditary (2018) and Midsommer (2019) are able to successfully link everything in A to B. The rest of the pack tend to include scenes of cultish weirdness for effect only (think HBO’s True Detective and the Paranormal Activity movies). The latter aren’t concerned with explaining the strange scenes by the end of the story, content that those scenes added flavor to the overall dish, like dashes of salt.
TEM falls somewhere in the middle. The scenes of cultish weirdness give James’ investigation a growing sense of unease, but they mostly exist in a surreal vacuum. Why do cult members chant in front of big black posters? (No, they aren’t fans of Metallica.) Why does one cult member create a picture of The Empty Man using his own entrails? Why does the cult member James nicknamed Neal Cassidy laugh while being punched repeatedly in the face? (James should have known that a Beat Generation reference would be completely lost on Gen Z-er.) Instead of explaining any of the above, the big reveal at the end ties the prologue with James’ search for Amanda, which was no small feat given how unrelated the two parts of the movie felt. With that taken into account, I forgave the movie for dabbling in the creepy cult movie sandbox without bothering to explain its WTF scenes.
I give Prior a lot of credit for creating a horror movie where the scary scenes build dramatically. He lets us see what the characters see and gives us time to absorb it, building a sense of dread before revealing the scare. TEM is a well-constructed horror movie, one that evokes terror through old school horror movie fundamentals instead bludgeoning us with jump scares or gore.
The budget for TEM is listed at $16m, and given the movie’s extensive use of exterior locations and set pieces, you can see the money on screen. The movie has a scope that puts other horror movies with a similar budget to shame. If there is one aspect of the movie that I found lacking, it’s with the acting. Aside from Stephen Root’s showy cameo as Arthur Parsons, the rest of the cast is filled with unknowns (to me anyway).
Of the leads, Sasha Frolova (Little Women) and Samantha Logan (13 Reasons Why) left positive impressions. Frolova gives Amanda a nerdy intensity that lifts the character above her Goth-girl appearance. Similarly, Logan portrays Davara with a guarded intelligence that forces you to look beyond her sultry, “too beautiful for school” appearance. Her awareness and recognition of her fate made her more than just another doomed teenager, and I wished she had survived.
Dale and Ireland provide what I would charitably describe as B-movie performances. Dale’s depressed and emotionally damaged James is a fairly rote portrayal, but he manages to provide the movie with its few moments of humor. (His bonding moment with a decaying Teddy Bear is macabrely funny.) Ireland’s Nora is similarly unimpressive as the weepy mother. Given how the move turns out, the argument could be made that Dale and Ireland’s characters are “bland by design”. I would disagree, however. The lack of talent in front of the camera was a minor problem for me, though. As constructed, the movie succeeds with atmospherics, mystery and weirdness, which make up for the acting deficiencies.
Last but not least, I’m surprised the Church of Scientology didn’t serve the filmmakers with a cease and desist order. Then again, the CoS being the nefarious organization that they are, could be using the movie as a recruiting tool. Why waste perfectly good marketing material?
Finally, James research into the Pontifex Institute reminded me a lot a horror movie from the Eighties. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know what fate is in store for James. Scroll past the video for the clue…
Angel Heart (1987).