How The Empty Man Became the Ring Video of Streaming

Have you seen The Empty Man? After hitting streaming platforms, the horror movie dismissed during the chaos of 2020 is being hailed as a cult classic.

An Image From The Empty Man
Image: 20th Century Studios

Have you seen The Empty Man? For a while there, Fox was probably hoping you would. Probably when it acquired the rights to the graphic novel from Boom! Studios. Probably when it gambled millions of dollars on David Prior’s big-screen horror debut. Probably before it knew that The Empty Man would be the last film to accidentally feature the original 20th Century Fox logo. Probably way before some very particular world events affected the global theatrical release schedule as we knew it.

Probably before all of that.

Have you seen The Empty Man? Prior and the former executive vice president of production at Fox, Mark Roybal, really wanted you to. The pair knew they were embarking on delivering a unique and ambitious horror movie, and Roybal was its studio champion – instrumental to getting that important initial greenlight. But during the final week of production when filming had to be halted due to bad weather, Roybal was out at Fox, and the behind the scenes struggles to get the film finished and released began.

A rushed test screening cut, negative audience reactions, a tax rebate panic, and studio nerves would be just some of the debilitating factors that would keep The Empty Man on the shelf for years, with Prior – a long-time David Fincher collaborator – still determined to get his film out into the world. Unfortunately, when it was finally unleashed during the “release something! Anything!” content chaos of 2020, there weren’t many people willing to give it the time of day, but those who did knew exactly what the film’s future would be.

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“Years from now, we will no doubt look back on an entire generation of great films that were lost to the ever-shifting chaos of the industry over these past few years,” wrote Leonard Zelig at The Fincher Analyst. “What does feel safe to say is that when we are discussing the great works lost to this strange time, 2020’s The Empty Man will be in the conversation.”

Have you seen The Empty Man? If you have, the plot is tough to describe. If you haven’t, it’s a little easier when your only frame of reference is the film’s trailer. Knowing nothing else, perhaps you’d say it looks like another Bye Bye Man or Slender Man. A throwaway creepypasta movie.

If you blow into a bottle when you’re on a bridge, you summon the spooky Empty Man? Ok, sure. Teens in danger? Obviously. But very few people who see the trailer get what they expect from the movie. Very few people who saw its piss-poor Rotten Tomatoes or audience score got what they expected. The Empty Man sits and waits, like a strange skeletal creature in a mountain cave or a random videocassette with no label, ready to be explored and discovered by a new person who has no idea what they’re getting themselves into.

Have you seen The Empty Man? On paper, perhaps you shouldn’t need to. James Badge Dale (Iron Man 3, Rubicon) leads the cast as James Lasombra – a grizzled, depressed ex-cop who is barely going through the motions of what you might call “living.” A family tragedy has left him a shell of his former self, but when a friend comes to him for help with finding her missing daughter, he becomes entangled in the world of a very weird cult that seems to have sunk its hooks into a gaggle of local teenagers. Lasombra then sets out on a mission to try and get to the bottom of it all. That sums up the movie well enough.

Have you seen The Empty Man? If you have, you’ll know that the plot summary above doesn’t do the film the least bit of justice. Cosmic horror, a 22-minute cold open you’ll never forget, imagery that will haunt you forever, philosophical questions of deconstruction, nihilism, the nature of religion and being, simulacra and simulation, and what lies beyond the veil are just some of its themes, and form just the tip of the iceberg. Those themes are just starting to inspire endless conversation – and a burgeoning stack of essays – among those who have seen the film and have realized that it was misjudged many times by people who really should have known better on its rocky road to their screens.

“The story lying beyond The Empty Man’s gorgeous anamorphic frames is also akin to a kind of koan,” mused Adam Nayman for Notebook at MUBI. “If a great cosmic horror movie gets (barely) released in the middle of a global pandemic, and nobody sees it, does it really exist?”

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Have you seen The Empty Man? Now that the film is streaming globally on the likes of HBO Max in the US and Disney+ Star in the UK, the number of people who have is only growing. It is finally starting to find its audience.

Quickly becoming an internet talking point, the movie’s spread often feels like that of the strange, disturbing video from the Ring franchise. The only way to lift the “curse” of having seen The Empty Man is to desperately find someone else to share it with. “You’ve gotta watch The Empty Man!” If there is such a thing as an instant cult classic, The Empty Man has managed to become one by way of its disastrous release, the quality of its genuinely unsettling visuals, sound design and themes, and its subsequent wide streaming availability.

“I’m glad that it’s slowly being revived and spread through my little corner of the internet,” wrote Jen at Cinema Etc. “I can’t wait to see revival screenings of this come up. The great thing about this film is that it exists in a place beyond comprehension. I heard about it. Then I saw it. Then it found me.”

But it didn’t need to be this way. In the last gasp of the ’90s, The Blair Witch Project found a wicked strategy to get around the Hollywood PR system by laying the groundwork for its release using a cheap website, a fake documentary and some message boards, using whispers of the film’s mythology to drum up anticipation ahead of the world discovering its ground-breaking (but not entirely original) shaky-cam genre pleasures.

If Fox hadn’t lost interest in promoting The Empty Man all these decades later, the studio could have had a whale of a time setting tongues wagging on social media by commissioning weird tie-ins and appealing to fans of “elevated horror” – though we’re always reticent to apply that phrase.

What kind of treatment would a company like A24 have given this movie? You can only wonder. Instead, The Empty Man’s champions will have to use social media, blogs, and whatever else is at their disposal to push for a comprehensive physical home release package as a kind of consolation prize.

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And that’s assuming they can get enough people on board to accomplish the task. There have been plenty of people watching The Empty Man via streaming this summer who won’t hesitate to tell you all the movie’s perceived failings. For every viewer that gets caught up in its psychological web, there are five who turn it off after the film makes its first handbrake turn 22 minutes in.

Have you seen The Empty Man? It’s throwaway creepypasta. It’s a Fincher-esque noir detective movie. It’s a waste of time. It’s a mind-bending rumination on what it means to be hollow and fill the void. It’s garbage. It’s a masterpiece. It’s way too long. Actually, the running time flies by. You’d rather swim in shark-infested waters than see it again. You need to share it with a friend. You’d never recommend it to anyone. You’d recommend it to everyone.

Ultimately, The Empty Man is what you make of it and what it means to you, and if it has burrowed deep inside your mind, the only way to cope with the questions you now have is to make someone else watch it.

Have you seen The Empty Man?