The Empty Man is a bizarrely ambitious mix of Pontypool, Inception, and Prince Of Darkness worth the over two-hour playtime.
Before going into The Empty Man, there are a few things to know. First, it is a bizarre trip down a philosophical rabbit hole, and second, it is VERY long. Most horror movies exceed an hour and a half. Writer/director, David Prior’s film is well over two hours. It is a marathon of weirdness that is sure to make your head spin. As unique as it is long, The Empty Man is several movies in one and all of them I want to see.
In a nearly half-hour-long prologue, four hikers in 1995 travel to Bhutan in the Eastern Himalayan Mountains. One of the hikers, Paul, hears something and follows it straight into a hole. When his friends try to retrieve him they find him physically unharmed but incapable of moving or communicating. Paul is sitting comatose in front of a sizeable demonic-looking skeleton with his massive hands steepled in the front of his body in the cave. His friends carry him out of the cave to an abandoned cabin. Over the course of the next three days, a mysterious cloaked and hooded creature stalks them until Paul’s girlfriend Ruthie, who Paul has been whispering too late at night, stabs the other two and commits suicide. This portion feels very much like a Dyatlov Pass Incident film with the remote snowy setting and stranded hikers.
The remaining film is broken into two distinct parts. James Lasombra is a private investigator who is mourning his wife and child’s loss one year ago. He talks to a girl named Amanda, who lost her father the same night in an unrelated incident. Amanda waxes philosophically in an increasingly bleak and overly mature manner before running off to school. Shortly after, she and most of her friends disappear. Lasombra starts an investigation into her disappearance as a favor to her mother, who he is close to. It seems they were having an affair and were together, the night his family died in the car crash. This section of the film is very Bye Bye Man with teens in peril doing foolish things and hard-boiled detectives vacillating between incredulous indifference and outright indignation.
The last third of the film is where things take an extremely bizarre turn. There are cults based on the concept of nothingness, religious dogma, and desperate resolution. As James finally learns the truth, he realizes nothing he thought he knew was real. He has always been just a vessel waiting to hold The Empty Man. Taking a page from René Descartes “I think therefore I am” only in reverse, James learns he was thought by others to be and not the other way around. Here’s everything you need to know about that wild ending.
What are all the philosphies in The Empty Man?
Everything that happens in this film is designed to make you think about who you are and what you believe. There aren’t any details spared. Bhutan is a sacred place home to the Tiger’s Nest Buddhist temple. The teens go to Jacques Derrida High School. He was an Algerian-born French philosopher best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis known as deconstruction. Derrida was heavily influenced by the semiology of Ferdinand de Saussure, who believed words have meaning only within their repeated context.
In other words, if words are used repeatedly within a specific context, they then have that meaning, but if used differently over time, those meanings could change. His critics have accused him of asserting in his 1967 text Of Grammatology that there is nothing except words. Scholars have long argued whether he said there is nothing but words or nothing beyond context, with the latter being the more widely accepted. The speaker at the Pontifex Society continues these thoughts by saying repetition is the death of meaning. Repeated enough times, the definition of anything becomes nothing more than jibberish.
In the Pontifex facility, the speaker spouts Friedrich Nietzsche like a depressed but brilliant philosophy professor at a liberal arts school. He questions James on the famous line, “if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” The Pontifex spin is the abyss doesn’t matter in so much as the act of conjuring the abyss and calling for something to look back. That act created the abyss, to begin with. It’s a real mindfuck that is echoed later by Amanda in the hospital room in the final scene.
Nietzsche believed you must become who you are meant to be by embracing self-reflective thought and rejecting outside influence like religion or a soul’s concept. He was influenced by his early childhood and the deaths of friends and family members. So much so that his work tended to be rather morose and contemplative even by philosophical standards. His concepts are often erroneously compared to Nihilism, which is an altogether different beast.
The Empty Man shows the philosophy of Nihilism in horror form.
Nihilism most closely relates to what the Pontifex Society believes. They believe life is meaningless beyond the further life of The Empty Man and absolute chaos. Curiously, Buddhists are often thought of as passive nihilists because they believe their existence is only as a salve for suffering. This is important because Bhutan is where the hikers first encountered the demon and the Tiger’s Nest is an important Buddhist monastery.
The followers of Pontifex worship a literal empty being. They believe as nihilists do that life and the universe means nothing. The difference between Pontifex and true nihilists is The Empty Man demands they find meaning in him and claims he can communicate meaning when no one else can. A nihilist believes there is no meaning to life full stop. The Pontifex disciples are nothing more than dumb rubes who have drunk too much of the philosophical Koolaid a deceitful demon served them.
Does the name of the Society mean anything?
Pontifex comes from the Latin roots pons, meaning bridge and fex meaning maker. It is commonly associated with the Pope as in Pontifex Maximus, which is the head religious leader. Pontifex talks about needing a bridge between thought and form. A human sacrifice who will act as a conduit between the group and The Empty Man. He will speak for the demon and espouse his wisdom, sowing the seeds of destruction.
What is a Tulpa?
Poor James Lasombra is a Tulpa. He is the manifestation of thought. Similar to a golem, only less magical and more mystical. Every detail and memory of his life was created by the group to make the demon’s perfect vessel to live. He needed to be guilty, depressed, angry, and in pain. He is all of those things.
Did James Lasombra exist beyond the contructs of the Pontifex Institute’s creation?
There are only two ways of looking at the ending of The Empty Man. Either Amanda is a world-class mindfucker and is playing a very long game of inception, or she is telling the truth. The truth is James isn’t who he thinks he is. It is the reason he keeps telling everyone he is from San Francisco. Repetition makes it real, at least to him. He popped into existence three days prior with a ready-made backstory suitably depressing to make him the perfect candidate. That is why Nora doesn’t know him on the phone and why Pontifex had all of his information including receipts, notes, and photos.
He kills Paul in the hospital bed and becomes the next Empty Man when he gives up the notion that he has any free will. Interestingly James shoots Paul through his third eye with the first shot, and the subsequent ones make the blood-splattered pattern we saw in earlier artwork. Without hope, he is broken and hollow making him ready for the demon. The demon had infected him shortly after his “birth” and was waiting to take over. The Empty Man concept was a virus that replicated within his mind until there was nothing else.
The biggest question becomes, is there a demon at all, and who created him? If Amanda and the Pontifex Society are to be believed, we created The Empty Man. He is the abyss, and we conjured him by looking for meaning there. If that is true, the moral of The Empty Man is this. Look for more hope than negativity, or you might create a chaos demon. Oh, hell, it’s too late.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.