David Prior’s The Empty Man, based on Cullen Bunn and Vanesa R. Del Rey’s graphic novel of the same name and available on Disney+ Hotstar, is by far the best horror film I have seen this year. Originally released on October 23, 2020, the film was initially met with negative reception. Furthermore, the studio lost faith in this project when it was poorly received at test screenings. Another movie that arrived this year, Joe Wright’s The Woman in the Window, also suffered from the curse of test screenings, when the director was asked to change the ending because the test audience thought that it was too confusing.
Anyway, I am glad to report The Empty Man does not suffer heavily. The horror remains intact in its core and you feel chills that touch your bones. This is a rare horror film that takes you deep into its abyss and leaves you paranoid about your surroundings. There were times when I had to hit pause just to make sure no one was standing at my door. Many ghost movies excessively employ monsters to imbue this kind of fearful feeling. In The Empty Man, the evil spirit rarely makes an appearance, yet you sense his presence looming large over everything. The characters look into the distance and start running upon hearing footsteps. Most of the time, you don’t see anyone standing in the frame, giving rise to frightful images in your mind (that’s why, whenever you do see the ghost, your fears are undercut).
Good horror films know their demons alone cannot raise heartbeats. They shower dread by creating a creepy atmosphere that works with the inhuman presence to make you jump from your seats. The Empty Man builds intense levels of spine-chilling trepidation. Forget supernatural entities; you develop panic by scanning the location it’s set in, be it the snowy mountains of Bhutan or the modern buildings of Missouri. It’s highly evident that this film is made by someone who loves, respects and understands this genre. It’s exciting to enter lore that is not borrowed from countless other flicks. The belief that if you blow into an empty bottle and think of the Empty Man, he will “get you” within three days is fresh, believable and chilling. The way it’s intertwined with a cult is eerie, to say the least. When human and non-human beings team up to wreak havoc, the results are often nerve-racking. Ask the Graham family from Hereditary, they would surely agree.
There are some memorable nail-biting scenes in the film: my favourites include the one with a teddy bear inside a cabin and the one that features cult members circling a fire. The latter took me back to the ending of The Witch, where a Witches’ Sabbath is performed around a bonfire. If you thought that was terrifying (which it was), get a load of this. Another moment of fright occurs inside a police station, where former detective James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) looks at everyone through the lens of perfidy. It’s paranoia at its peak, as the character and the audience suspect the officers of belonging to the cult. If Evil Dead cautioned you against reading from a bizarre book and The Descent warned you to not go hiking at an unknown place, The Empty Man will make you think twice the next time you go near an empty bottle lying on a bridge. Introducing such terror is no small feat.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.