I’d heard that the director of The Empty Man listed Mulholland Drive as one of his inspirations for the film, and that was all I needed to pop it on last night and give it a shot. I’m glad I did.
The movie opens in Bhutan in 1995. Four hikers stumble on a spooky cave with a creepy skeleton statue that possesses one of them, a discount Aaron Paul (the actor’s name is Aaron Poole and his character’s name is Paul, proving something about nameology). It gets horror-y. You know the drill! It’s well done stuff, the scenery is great. I loved the sounds of wind. I loved watching all the snow fall. I loved the soundtrack, done by Lustmord, whose name rang a bell (as a high schooler obsessed with Ipecac Recordings, I was reminded of the split he did with The Melvins, which I listened to once and then went back to putting California on repeat).
Then we cut to St. Louis in 2018. It’s funny that the year is so specific. Remember when they used to do “present day”? That shit doesn’t fly anymore, because You Know Why.
Ex-cop investigates the disappearance of Goth Neighbor Girl. Ex-cop is played by Sparrow Creek actor James Badge Dale, who has one of the strangest middle names I’ve ever heard. “Hello, I’m James Nametag Dale.” The character he plays is also named “James”, which further makes me think there’s something weird going on with names in this movie. I’m informed by other websites that his character’s last name, “Lasombra,” means shadow in Spanish, a word I never learned, as it is not required for functional day-to-day existence in El Paso, actually most Spanish isn’t, because Mexicans tend to get embarrassed for you if they hear you struggling through basic Spanish, and would prefer you didn’t. I miss that town about once a week.
Goth Neighbor Girl has the same haircut as Mad TV’s Stewart. She tells Ex-cop, as they sit in front of The Dirty Green Backyard Pool (he’s a widower) that thoughts are not generated in the brain, but rather pass through our brains, which is true as far as I can tell. I was on board.
For an hour, the movie is paced, shot, and feels like a capable knockoff of The Ring. I appreciated this element of the film. I like that Prior didn’t try to “art” the whole thing up, as I’m a little sick of artsy aesthetics. In Mandy, for example, which I thought was great, you could have cut that thing to run a bit more smoothly, but we needed those long shots of the cult guy being weird because This Movie is Art. No, Mandy is a movie where a lizard biker drinks a mason jar full of cum (a friend informed me it’s actually LSD juice, but I choose to remember it as a jar full of cum) and while there’s nothing wrong per se with having the shot composition and color palette of an art film, I like that this movie (talking The Empty Man again) chose to go for that made-for-TV feel…and to just own it. It’s refreshing to see a pig without lipstick, for once. But this movie is like…a prize pig. Gold medal pig. My friend had a minipig that he trained to get him beers from the fridge. This movie is like that pig.
A little more plot wrapup: spooky wraith creature is killing teens who foolishly decide to dare each other to blow over a bottle. It’s classic urban legend stuff, and they get dispatched quickly, including one in the shower, which made me think “damn, they’re going there.” There is a nice moment where the thing is hiding in the fog of the spa that works well. Ex-cop is finding bodies and unraveling the mystery, which leads him to something called The Pontifex Institute, which is where my description of the plot will end so that the final glorious hour of this thing can be a surprise for you.
There is a holistic feel to the thing, anchored by a great leading man, and throughout I felt pleasantly surprised how comfortable the whole thing felt, like I was in the hands of a skilled craftsman who wanted to make this type of movie to its fullest. Again, I love Black Rainbow and Ari Aster’s movies (they were my favorites of whatever year I saw them in, I’ll bet) but this one chose to work from the aesthetic genre in which it found itself. The camera is pointed coherently and the editing is fluid. The scares are all earned.
And as a final note, I’ll point to something that freaked me out about the movie. I enjoy reading New Thought as described by Mitch Horowitz, which is the idea that your mind is God, and that thoughts are causative. The problem that I’ve had with this way of looking at the world, however, is that as a person with constant intrusive thoughts, the idea that those might be causative is terrifying. This movie plays up on this fear, including mentions of a “brain itch,” which is how I’ve always described my OCD symptoms. It was nice to see some representation on screen. When James the Badge infiltrates the cult meeting, still looking for Goth Neighbor Girl, the cult leader gives a speech about words being repeated over and over again, how they lose their original meanings and take on new ones, and I thought to myself This might be a bad sign for my mental health that I’m nodding along with the evil cult leader in the horror movie. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose. Oh, and the kids in this movie attend “Jacques Derrida High School.” Lol.