The Empty Man (R16, 137mins) Directed by David Prior *
Thirty summers ago, I was attacked by stuffed toys.
It was the height of my teen screen acting career, playing the lead role in my classmate’s low-budget horror short Paws. What we lacked in skill, we made up for in inventiveness, bringing to life the 1812 Overture-scored, pyrotechnic-filled climax of the Child’s Play-esque conceit via a combination of a boom box, rapid repeated throwing of our writer-director’s vast collection of cuddly animals and a stockpile of dairy-bought, now illegal fireworks. It was a one-take deal and it must have scared the hell out of the neighbours in Dunedin’s North East Valley.
I was reminded of my own cinematic misadventures while watching the frighteningly awful farrago that is The Empty Man. More than 90-minutes into this two-and-a-quarter-hour nonsensical nightmare and our dogged former detective James Lasombra (24’s James Badge Dale) is seemingly being followed by a large, losing-its-stuffing black bear. We’re not sure if it’s a figment of his increasing psychosis, or whether it’s possibly possessed.
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By this point, I wanted it to be the latter and end mine and the sparse Thursday night audience’s torment. Sadly, it wasn’t to be, and we still had another 45 minutes of increasingly unravelling plot to wade through.
From what I could make out of this 2017-shot adaptation of Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey’s 2014 graphic novel of the same name, dusted off by Disney from out of the same Fox-vault that gave us September’s The New Mutants, Lasombra is trying to find his missing neighbour, a teen girl who initially seems to have fallen foul of an urban legend involving bridges and homemade panpipes (don’t ask), but upon further investigation has instead been suckered in by secretive sect/doomsday cult the Pontifex Institute. There’s also a mysterious link to a Bhutan-set prologue, where four climbers stumble across not-quite-human-remains and only one of them survives the next three days.
This combination of convoluted, ever-changing storylines, Candyman-esque rules of engagement and Jacob’s Ladder-like mysteries feels as if, as iconic Kiwi radio broadcaster Graeme Hill used to so lovingly put it, “it was made up by [The Simpson’s] Milhouse van Houten” – all that’s missing are the reverse vampires. It also boasts enough crazy conspiracies (and yes the similarities of the cult to a certain church favoured by Hollywood stars is just the beginning) to suggest it was put together by a social media group whose Scrabble word score adds up to 14.
Look, it’s a story that might just work if it was led by someone with the gravitas of Denzel Washington (think Fallen), or the sheer compelling nuttiness of Nicolas Cage (take your pick of his oeuvre). But with everyman Badge Dale playing it straight – it just doesn’t fly.
To be fair, writer-director Prior (best known for his behind-the-scenes documentaries of David Fincher movies like Zodiac and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) demonstrates plenty of artistic flair, but he needed to channel another David – Lynch – in order to add the surreal-edge that might have lifted this wretched disaster.
A movie that makes Fox’s polarising and similarly-confounding A Cure For Wellness now look like a masterpiece and “almost” make you yearn for the simpler “delights” of the much-derided Slender Man, The Empty Man really emphasises how bare the Covid cinematic cupboard must be while the studios wait for the pandemic to die down.
To think, Disney gave Kiwi theatres this box-office poison, in place of Black Widow.