James Badge Dale stars in “The Empty Man” as James Lasombra, a former detective who lost his wife and child in a shocking car accident the prior year. One day, his neighbor’s daughter abruptly vanishes without a trace, save for an unsettling message (one written in blood, natch) that reads, “The Empty Man made me do it.” Digging deeper, James learns The Empty Man is a malevolent specter who, according to local legend, can be summoned by blowing across an empty bottle on a bridge while thinking of them … which he, a very wise man, then proceeds to do himself. Seems like pretty standard horror genre stuff, right?
Here’s the thing I’ve been leaving out: James’ storyline doesn’t even begin until around 20 to 25 minutes into the film. Instead, “The Empty Man” opens in 1995 in Ura Valley in Bhutan, where a group of mountain hikers have a most unexpected encounter. I’m being deliberately vague here because “The Empty Man” is absolutely one of those films where the less you know about what you’re getting yourself into, the more exhilarating the actual journey is. This extended prologue alone would’ve made for a killer short film in and of itself, merging elements of subterranean horror with wilderness survival drama and scares that are unique in both their presentation and execution.
Some have argued this opening sets the bar so high that the rest of the film fails to match it. But while I can see their point, I have to politely disagree.