‘The Empty Man’ Is Scary Because Humans, Not Monsters

'The Empty Man' Is Scary Because Humans, Not Monsters

This line in The Empty Man, delivered by Detective Villers (Ron Canada), speaks to the hopelessness that permeates this entire feature. Horror films are no strangers to dark atmospheres and many modern frightening films are wall-to-wall darkness save for maybe a happy ending. But titles like The Conjuring or The Black Phone limited the scariness of the world to one person or one location where supernatural entities flourish. The Empty Man is a downright nihilistic exercise because its scares can come from anywhere. Within David Prior’s feature-length directorial effort, despair and terror are around every corner thanks to the terrible impulses of humanity rather than just the malicious behavior of its titular creature.

What Is ‘The Empty Man’ About?
Loosely adapted from a series of Boom! Studios comics of the same name by Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey, The Empty Man follows former police officer James Lasombra (James Badge Dale), whose whole life is living in the shadow of his wife and son’s tragic death in a car accident. When his neighbor’s daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova) goes missing, Lasombra takes it upon himself to find out where she went and what an entity called The Empty Man has to do with her disappearance. Before we even get to this main plotline, though, The Empty Man makes its bleak tone apparent through a lengthy prologue involving hikers who end up doomed once a member of the group becomes possessed by The Empty Man.

In ‘The Empty Man,’ Evils Are Everywhere
Starting off your feature-length movie with a standalone Twilight Zone episode is already a gusty enough move to earn the audience’s respect. But having Prior’s screenplay start on a wholly different continent from the rest of the movie establishes right away how the evils of both The Empty Man and human beings are everywhere. The moment Paul (Aaron Poole) becomes a tool for greater supernatural forces, his three friends begin to crack under the pressure. No heroes emerge in this time of crisis, just people turning on each other and one member of the group even berating Paul for always being self-centered in life. Conflict was always brewing within this social group, a signal of the darkness that lies within the souls of man.

This prologue also establishes a detail that emphasizes The Empty Man’s dark tone as something unique in the pantheon of horror cinema: the randomness of its brutality. Ask Jamie Kennedy from Scream and he’ll tell you there are “rules” as to who lives and dies in traditional horror movies. The Empty Man, like so many other horror films, tosses out those roles, but here that’s done to suggest that nobody is safe from the cruelty of humanity. It doesn’t matter if you’re a virgin, a saint, a criminal, or anything else, everyone is susceptible to the whims of The Empty Man as well as the horrors human beings can enact. This prologue and its pile of bodies make that quite clear. Whether killers or victims, nobody is safe.

From there, The Empty Man shifts its focus to Lasombra, who is as downtrodden in disposition as the movies tone. When Amanda’s mom, Nora (Marin Ireland), asks Lasombra if the cops are going to do anything to find her daughter, he glumly replies “probably not.” This guy was in the world of law enforcement for years. He knows their double standards, their priorities, and everything else. He knows they can’t turn to the cops for help. Institutions conceptually designed to help people are just further evidence of moral decay in the world of The Empty Man. Everybody is out on their own here.

‘The Empty Man’ Invokes Real-life Cults
Considering that truism, maybe it’s no wonder, then, that characters in this world have begun turning to the Pontifex Institute, a cult that preaches wisdom about how, among other core ideas, reality itself is extremely flexible and as a byproduct of that, morality doesn’t exist. All of these ideas involve the entity known as The Empty Man, but they send a chill up one’s own spine because they invoke real-life cults. Specifically, they remind one of how much exploitation is contained on every level in these organizations. Pontifex Institute leader Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root) channels Jim Jones and countless other people throughout history who preached compassion but normalized slaughter. The members of this cult, who are willing to do anything in the name of The Empty Man, conjure up similarly horrifyingly unforgettable figures from the real world.

Prior Reminds Us That Boogeymen Lie Within Everyday People
The Empty Man’s bleak atmosphere doesn’t creep one out because everything is colored gray and somber. Prior’s script smartly channels reality in reminding viewers what kind of boogeymen lie within everyday people. Who needs a killer in a hockey mask when people willing to murder others in the name of their cult are out there? Detective Villers himself talks about this in a lengthy monologue after Davara (Samantha Logan) kills herself in an especially brutal fashion. His dialogue references other recent murders and violent deeds connected to The Empty Man. All of this carnage, coming from the most unexpected of people, it’s just too much for Villers to comprehend.

His befuddlement at the state of the world and how chaotic violence seems to be everywhere is very relatable. Anyone whose fallen down a rabbit hole of breaking news articles about global atrocities or even just Wikipedia pages about various horrific events from history will know that the depravity of humanity can often be overwhelming. The Empty Man’s bleak view of humanity is further underscored by a memorable scene where Lasombra kidnaps a member of the Pontifex Institute in broad daylight on a sidewalk. You’d think it’d be impossible for him to smuggle this guy into his car at this time of day, but the camera lingers on all nearby potential witnesses being too busy glued to their phones to notice the kidnapping. At this moment, The Empty Man doesn’t just pinpoint the bleakness of the world at murderers, but also a larger uncaring society.