There’s a specificity of intention to David Prior’s “The Empty Man” that eludes most studio horror projects. Inspired by the Boom Studios! comic (created by writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanessa del Rey), Prior’s debut could have been a success story were the movie released under different circumstances. Inherited by Disney following the Fox merger, and dumped into theaters mid-pandemic, “The Empty Man” certainly wasn’t given the A24 Ari Aster treatment, which is a shame, as Prior’s film would make an outstanding, grief-tinged double feature with “Midsommar” or “Hereditary,” though its shape is far more chimerically hypnotic.
Laying somewhere in the cosmic ether between David Fincher’s serial killer films, “Se7en” and “Zodiac,” Prior’s sepulchral vision slithers like a paranormal odyssey in the guise of a J-horror procedural a la Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s “Cure,” veteran character actor James Badge Dale aiding in making detective work look effortless through a mesmerizing lead performance. “We go looking for things we have lost… More than that, there is no such thing as loss,” a mysterious cult leader, played by Stephen Root, preaches
Audiences missed out on “The Empty Man,” but it’s deservedly found a devoted following. “If the price of making the movie I wanted to make meant getting abandoned by the studio and left to be picked up by passionate people who saw it on their own, that’s not a bad outcome.” Prior told us, “At least it’s the movie I wanted to make. It wasn’t some highly compromised, shortened, messed up version of that probably would have gotten more support from the studio but it would have vanished from everybody’s mind as soon as they saw it.”
Prior was later approached by David Fincher (for whom he used to direct documentaries) about a new film appreciation series, titled “Voir.” Scheduled to debut at AFI Fest this month, Netflix’s video essay project spotlights “passionate voices that love movies… highlighting the elements that get people excited about cinema.”
In a time when streaming services threaten to swallow up the theatrical experience, “Voir” is an essential look back at what makes film uniquely hypnotic. “Movies cornered the cultural conversation throughout the 20th century.” Prior told us. “It was the art form of the 20th century… [movies] don’t hold the same place in cultural thinking they used to and there’s a lot that’s important being lost.”
No great film deserves to be forgotten, and Prior is keenly aware platforms like Netflix now hold the keys to Hollywood’s kingdom, as “custodians to the cinematic experience.” “The Empty Man,” may not have mopped up box office dollars but revealed its director to be as impassioned and skilled a filmmaking scholar as David Fincher. We were fortunate to sit down for an extensive chat with him ahead of “Voir’s” upcoming premiere. Eerily, both his debut film and new Netflix series stemming from an obsession with “Jaws,” the legendary Steven Spielberg, a fervent supporter of his film appreciation project.