The Daily Stream: It's Time To Accept The Empty Man Into Your Life

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "The Empty Man"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: After an absolutely killer prologue set in the mid-1990s (more on that in a minute), the story jumps ahead to 2018 and follows troubled former cop James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) as he searches for a group of missing teenagers and stumbles across an ancient cult overseen by a mysterious and terrifying local entity known as "The Empty Man." After Lasombra engages the Empty Man by saying his name and blowing across the top of an empty bottle on a bridge (heavy shades of "Candyman" there), the man's mental state begins to suffer as he slowly discovers the unsettling truth behind the cult.

Why It's Essential Viewing

I'm not a huge horror movie guy. I like the genre just fine, but I'm not a voracious consumer of horror content like many of my colleagues here at /Film. So take this what whatever size grain of salt you deem necessary, but ... holy sh*t, the opening of this movie rules so damn hard, you guys. First-time feature film director David Prior opens the film on the image of a mountain, recalling Steven Spielberg's instantly recognizable opening shot of "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Prior knows exactly what he's doing by using a similar framing: he's so confident in his movie that he's essentially calling his shot like Babe Ruth pointing at center field. It's a wildly ballsy move, but here's the thing: in the minutes that follow, he actually delivers (well, at least with the prologue). There's one especially disquieting image that occurs before the movie's title that is deeply unsettling, and that image haunts the rest of the film. I'll be vague so I don't spoil it, but everything else that happens is colored by the disturbing nature of that scene – if that is possible, then what other horrors await?

"The Empty Man" is not quite the home run Prior predicts: the story's gradual revelations don't always land with ideal impact, and the ending in particular lacks the jaw-dropping quality that it feels like the filmmakers were aiming for. But to continue this strained baseball analogy, the movie is a solid triple. And crucially, it doesn't just coast off the high of its opening scene. There's a moment at a campground in the back half of the movie that rivals the opening's eerie, ominous qualities, and the always-solid James Badge Dale reacts perfectly to a scene of impending doom. Faceless cult members writhing and churning and chasing in unison? Always horrifying.

And hey, any movie that calls Stephen Root off the bench and lets him work some magic for ten minutes playing a smooth-talking cult fanatic automatically gets an extra half-star tacked onto its rating.

"The Empty Man" was unceremoniously dumped in theaters back in 2020, an unfortunate victim of the Disney/Fox acquisition. But if you're not ready to call it quits on scary movies for this season, this is a nice way to fill up your depository of creeping dread and existential horror.