Cosmic horror, surrealism, Japanese horror, police procedural, and a missing girl, The Empty Man has many classic horror components to dissect. Still, one thing it’s not is Slenderman/The Bye-Bye Man mash-up the trailer initially touted (thank goodness). Instead, The Empty Man, which is based on a Boom! Studios graphic novel was a big swing for 20th Century Fox, an ambitious, experimental horror film with Lovecraftian elements made on a sizable budget that takes incredible risks, some that pay off more than others.
Unfortunately for the film, which was made by David Fincher’s protégé, it was among the few last movies scheduled for release by Fox before the Disney merger. It was one of the few movies to actually get its release date moved up during the theater shut down in 2020. Suffice to say; the company had no faith in this film.
Not only was it poorly marketed, Prior didn’t even get a chance to finish editing the film. The version released is technically a “rough cut,” as the director said he had intended to cut another six minutes. As it is, The Empty Man has a runtime of over two hours, which is pretty rare for a horror film.
The mishandling of this film is a shame because now that it has been seen by a wider audience and more horror fans, the film is finding more fans and even considered a contender as a cult classic. Over the past weekend, the movie was released on HBO Max. Here’s hoping that more people watch it because while it certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a reminder of what the genre is capable of and how cool it is when we get to see big-budget horror films that take legitimate risks.
The Empty Man ending: What happens to James? What is the Empty Man?
Now that we’ve established the merit of the movie let’s discuss what it all means. I’ll preface this by saying that this is one of those films that probably needs to be watched a few times to fully comprehend it and pick up on all of the clues.
Spoiler warning: It should go without saying, but this article contains major spoilers for the movie.
At the end of the film, the big reveal is that James is a thoughtform, or a Tulpa, created by the Pontifex Institute. The institute, which masquerades as a self-empowerment group, is a cult that serves an ancient being. We don’t actually find out what this being is because the implication is that the “empty man” is just the vessel through which this being can communicate with its followers.
Throughout the film, we find out that James’s wife and son were killed in a car accident while James was busy having an affair. He’s plagued by guilt for what happened to them and the fact he wasn’t there. But in reality, none of that happened. The Pontifex Institute implanted those dark memories in James’s head so that when the time came for him to give himself over to the Empty Man and become the new vessel, he’d be less inclined to fight. Why bother if his entire life was a lie?
In fact, James was born the very day we meet him, three days before he succumbs to the cult’s mission. Even the birthday coupon he used at the Mexican restaurant at the beginning of the film was left by the cult. The sole purpose of James’s existence was the serve the cult. But we also meet the current vessel in the hospital, currently in a comatose state. Guess who it is? Paul, from the film’s cold open.
Since interacting with that creepy skeleton in the cave, Paul became the vessel. But his body deteriorated more quickly than the cult would have liked, hence why they dabbled in experimentation to create a new vessel. When James visits the Pontifex Institute for the first time, leader Arthur Parsons refers to James having visited them before.
At that point, James doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but it’s obvious foreshadowing. Similarly, those old videotapes labeled “Manifestation 14” likely were footage of previous people the cult had been trying to turn into vessels and failed. James was the first success.
The Empty Man: What’s the deal with Amanda?
That’s where Amanda ties in. We meet Amanda early on. She’s the daughter of Nora, the woman James had an affair with. From the moment we meet Amanda, it’s clear there is something a little off about her as she waxes poetic about how “nothing is real,” a cornerstone of the cult’s system of beliefs.
After that, Amanda disappears. Leaving behind nothing but a bloody message that reads “The Empty Man made me do it,” a frantic Nora contacts James and the police. For the first part of the film, we’re led to believe this is mostly a conventional crime drama as James tries to find a missing girl and her friends. Of course, we later find out that the story is much more than that as Amanda’s friends fall prey to the Empty Man one by one.
It’s also interesting that the film consistently divides its timeline into three-day segments since, in religion, Jesus rose on the third day. Using “three days” is a popular motif in literature and storytelling, and it makes total sense in this instance since James is forced to embrace his role as the cult’s vessel on the third day, giving rise to whatever the real entity is that is using him to transmit messages.
The Empty Man is now streaming on HBO Max.