Horror film The Empty Man stars James Badge Dale as a ex-cop searching for a child

The Empty Man (MA15+, 137 minutes)

2 stars

Watching a horror movie in an otherwise empty cinema at Dendy might usually be considered a disappointment.

If the audience is into it - screaming at the jump scares, laughing for relief, gripped by the story - then it's a great communal experience, like a comedy, that can lift the movie.

James Badge Dale as James Lasombra in The Empty Man. Picture: Ilze Kitshoff.

James Badge Dale as James Lasombra in The Empty Man. Picture: Ilze Kitshoff.

I was alone for The Empty Man, but it didn't hurt (or help). Based on a graphic novel (which I haven't read), this is more of a slow-burn mystery horror movie that wants your attention.

There's a long - very long - prologue set in Bhutan in 1995 that's spooky and heavy on atmosphere. It sets up a lot of what is to come with symbolism and foreshadowing and makes more sense in retrospect. This mini-movie is the most effective section of The Empty Man.

After that, we jump to a small mid-Western town in 2018. Security-store owner and former undercover cop James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) is trying to recover from a past trauma.

His friend and neighbour Nora (Marin Ireland) is concerned about her teenage daughter Amanda (Sasha Frolova), who suddenly left home, and James sets out to find her.

Soon, we move into been-here-before teen-horror territory as he learns bits and pieces about the story of The Empty Man, a mysterious entity who's summoned by thinking about him as you blow across the rim of a bottle. If you're foolish enough to do that, as the legend relates, "On the first night you hear him, the second night you see him and the third night he finds you."

Will our hero, so to speak, blow it? and in how many ways?

Presumably someone thought Halloween was apt timing for a horror movie but this might be a bit subdued and cerebral for the thrills-and-gore crowd

James takes a while to follow up another clue he's found relating to a mysterious something called the Pontifix Institute. He researches it and goes to hear a speech by its leader, Arthur Parsons (Stephen Root). The speech is a bit like the film as a whole, complicated but hollow. Now we're in conspiracy/cult territory and our boy James is getting in deep.

The Empty Man is a pretentious and murky mix of elements from other horror movies - The Ring and Candyman are two that spring immediately to mind. It's not done with winks and humour, though. This is a film that wants to be taken Seriously, and spouts a lot of half-baked philosophical jargon and concepts that become annoying and the pay-offf is unsatisfying even if things sort of come together eventually.

Worst of all, I could predict the main twist of the ending long before it came.

The film is also far too drawn out at a ludicrous 137 minutes. Rosemary's Baby (1968) was about the same length but it was far more effective in justifying its running time.

The Empty Man been some time arriving. The copyright year is 2018 and it still has the old 20th Century Fox logo on it, instead of the new 20thCentury Studios name bestowed by new owner Disney.

This flopped in the US so it's a bit of a mystery why it's getting a cinema release here. Presumably someone thought Halloween was apt timing for a horror movie but this might be a bit subdued and cerebral for the thrills-and-gore crowd. How many films have a high school named after Jacques Derrida, the daddy of deconstruction? How many would want to?

To its credit, the film does try to create atmosphere - the sound work is particularly impressive - and explore some ideas rather than just indulging in cheap scares and gore.

There's less than meets the eye, though, in the philosophical aspect and the film isn't above the occasional burst of violence. Notably, there's a Psycho-esque stabbing scene in a spa.

The Empty Man does have an impressive cast, though their roles are underwritten. Badge Dale has had an extensive career (he was one of the cops in The Departed) and is believable as a depressed, haunted man.

Root is an actor who can be simultaneously charming and sinister and that quality is used to good effect.

Screenwriter, director and co-editor David Prior's previous credits have mostly been making-of documentaries for feature films.

On the evidence of The Empty Man, he's got technical skill and a talent for evoking brooding atmosphere.

He needs to find better material - and a co-writer or script editor to help him condense and refine it.

This story Empty horror that's far too long first appeared on The Canberra Times.