The Empty Man is the Comic Book Adaptation I Need

In a world of non-stop comic book adaptations, how do you make a jump from frame to screen actually interesting?

I have to be honest: while my delightful partner in life and writing has everything smart to say about comic book adaptations, I am pretty burned-out on them. The closest I came to actually loving a comic book adaptation in the last few years was Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen sequel, and even then, that was a shedding of the skin of the initial (dreadful) Zack Snyder take and a step forward from the original comic book. Comic books as a genre offer enormous range and depth, but it feels like we’ve been stuck in a non-stop loop of superheroes of various moral greyness when we should clearly be focusing on bringing the Fun Home musical to the big screen.

But let me tell you this: when it comes to catching my interest, slapping on the horror genre is the way to go. Which brings me to The Empty Man, lauded as one of the great overlooked horror movies of 2020, nuked into obscurity by the pandemic. Based on Cullen Dunn and Vanessa R. Del Ray’s graphic novel of the same name, The Empty Man is one of those films I’ve been eyeing with curiosity for a while now – but that comic book stain kept me from making the jump.

But I finally got around to watching it for the first time earlier this month, and let me tell you – everyone calling it one of the great horror movies of the decade already is right as fuck. Following a former detective, James (James Badge Dale), as he is drawn into investigating the disappearance of his neighbour’s daughter, it’s sets itself up as a classic noir with a few supernatural elements sprinkled in – and then takes a hard turn into the downright brilliantly inventive.

I mean, okay, that’s not how it seems at first: The Empty Man starts out with a long pre-amble following a group of friends trekking in Nepal (and one of those friends is played by Aaron Poole, of the brilliant The Void non-fame, much to my delight), a superstitious, unsettling reminder of what this film is really about that hangs over the head of the seemingly-standard detective story that follows. In a film as lengthy as The Empty Man, a prologue like this is so neccessary; a grim portent that’s constantly waiting to come bite the characters – and the audience – in the ass.

But even if The Empty Man was just relying on noir credentials to make things work, it has that going for it too. I’m not a huge fan of the noir genre as a whole, but the aesthetics are undeniably It; the rain-slicked streets, the shadowy figure looming in the dark, the slow unpicking of a story until something makes sense. Badge Dale (why does that sound like the name I would give to a cartoon cop character? Moving on) knows his stuff when it comes to the procedural, and his performance here has a gritty realness to it that helps ground things even as they start stepping into the preter-natural.

And it’s here, as things get post-logic, that The Empty Man really thrives. Pretty much every version of every story has been done in horror already, and yet, there’s something about The Empty Man’s plot that kept me guessing till the last minute. Working a mystery and a great reveal is a balancing act between dropping enough hints to give the audience a chance to guess, and holding back enough that when you land the killer blow, it actually matters; it’s hard to think of a movie in recent memory that has done it with more aplomb and skill than The Empty Man. And yes, you’ll notice that I’m not saying much about the actual mystery or reveal in question, because I really think it’s best experienced as cold as you can come to it.

The Empty Man is that bitch when it comes to comic book adaptations – a skillful take on the story told on the page that brings enough cinematic flair to the retelling to make it worth your while. Even if your sick of the comic book movie, make some room in your watchlist for this one.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via The Film Stage)

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