The Entity March 30, 2021
On Lucky, The Empty Man, and Violation
hortly into the clever new horror thriller Lucky, now on Shudder, a man breaks into the home of May (a terrific Brea Grant), a self-help writer in a creative lull.
When May wakes up her husband, Ted (Dhruv Uday Singh), when she initially spots the intruder outside, his response is so unbelievable that we almost laugh. His instinct is not to match his wife’s panic — immediately fumble around the bedroom for a decoration to use as a weapon — but to immediately downplay it with a frankly bizarre statement: “That’s the man who comes every night and tries to kill us.” May has no idea what her husband is talking about — she knows she's never dealt with something like this before — but doesn’t have any time to ask questions. (The couple manages to take this ostensibly nightly intruder out before they can get too hurt themselves; this predator’s apparently lifeless body somehow disappears into the ether before the cops arrive for statements.)
Brea Grant in 2021's Lucky.
Things don’t subsequently get clearer for May after the attack. Sure enough, this guy in a plastic mask keeps arriving to do the same deed every night. Even though each evening May appears to have killed the man for the last time (by now gallons of his blood have pooled on her floors), it doesn’t seem to matter. When May opens up to people in her life about what she’s been enduring, everyone seems to be pretending like they care — like they’ve known the full story all along but don’t want to spoil it for her. Director Natasha Kermani finds a solid tonal middle ground between absurdism and real terror.
We know that Grant, who also wrote the movie, is striving for something more thoughtful than what’s usually offered in an average slasher movie with the not-at-all jokey playing-out of its Groundhog Day (1993)-like premise. But if its bent is allegorical and not, standard for the slasher, purely violent and mystery-driven, what is its aim? The mind instinctively races for meaning. Given May’s profession, I wondered at first if the movie was taking aim at the public harassment women writers increasingly face, or more generally how injurious it can feel when self-doubt ambushes the creative process.
Eventually Lucky’s conceit comes into focus. This meta slasher sees patriarchy itself manifesting into the improbably omniscient mad slasher, seemingly appearing only when a woman really digests how much living in a patriarchal society affects her. (The “intruder”’s arrival comes around the time May starts to lose some conviction in the girlboss-style the-only-person-holding-you-back-is-you mantras she’s been espousing in her writing.) There is no such thing as the “final girl,” terrorized but eventually safe, in Lucky’s universe. When police dismissively advise May to remain “calm and vigilant” on the th night she's attacked, it’s a callous punchline. The movie scrutinizes the misogyny inherent to the slasher movie while also using the genre’s conventions to critique the systems and dominant cultural attitudes that trivialize May’s safety and cries for help.
In tandem with its push for profundity, it can seem early on like Lucky also misguidedly indulges in the slasher tropes it evidently knows are silly, whether it be May’s continued willingness to wander around in pitch darkness or her insistence on staying by herself. (Her husband leaves indefinitely soon after the "first" intrusion; “I can’t change this: this is just how things are,” he says around the time of his unexpected departure.) But soon we understand that there isn’t a thing in Lucky that hasn’t been mulled over by Grant, who, in showing her heroine trying to live as normally as possible in spite of the horrors wreaked on her, is certainly being methodical. There is only so much her heroine can take, though.
Grant tacitly criticizes her protagonist when, upon learning that other women are suffering from the same strange affliction she is, she takes an individualistic stance that mirrors the tough-love, Sheryl Sandbergian offerings of the books she has made her name off of. There may not be one solution to May's problems, but forgoing the collective and general solidarity is unequivocally not the move. “I don’t feel like I’m living in my world anymore…I feel like I don’t know how to play the game anymore,” May says toward the end of the movie. Ordinary slasher movies, which tend to have cathartic but ultimately neat endings, seem practically jovial compared to Lucky. They often have blessed finiteness. In Lucky, the horrors don’t end when the credits start to roll; they cannot be resolved in an hour and a half.
he Empty Man, finally available to stream after a long and tumultuous post-production, is a pretzeled horror movie. It contorts with too many narrative turns, too many loose ends — it gets in the way of
itself. James Badge Dale has the central role. He’s James Lasombra, a former cop. We meet him in 2018, celebrating his birthday alone, a year out from tragedy: the death of his wife and son in a car accident. Now manning a hardware store to get by, his days are mostly spent sitting in his loss. With chant-like repetition, a voice in his head asks, “where were you?” James’ only friends seem to be his neighbor, Nora (Marin Ireland), and her teenage daughter, Amanda (Sasha Frolova). The three bond through personal loss — Nora’s husband unexpectedly died two years ago from a heart attack. In The Empty Man, these intersecting layers of grief act form an emotional foundation. The primary storyline’s inciting incident comes a little later on, when Amanda disappears out of the blue. The police aren’t very concerned, since Amanda is 18 and appears to have left on her own accord. But James, understandably, thinks something is amiss. Why would Amanda take the time to scrawl on her bathroom mirror “THE EMPTY MAN MADE ME DO IT” before heading out? (She used animal blood to write out her farewell, no less.)
So begins an impromptu investigation. Along with us, James learns that this Empty Man is in the pantheon of creepy urban legends — Bloody Mary, Candy Man, and the like. Supposedly, if you blow into a bottle you’ve found while standing on a bridge and think hard enough about him, the Empty Man finds you. (His search will take some time, though: rumor has it that the first day after that initial bottle blow you’ll hear him; the second you’ll see him; the third he'll find you. This entity knows the virtues of fashionable lateness.) As evidenced by creepy diary entries, Amanda was (for reasons never explained) obsessed with the Empty Man. She seemed to look at him with a saintly reverence.
This movie might have been something special, I think, had it taken the Zodiac (2007)-style turn the first few acts suggest: pile on the monstrous horrors, have them coagulate with grief and guilt, but offer no relief. An endless search for answers becomes part of the nightmarishness. (Soon after Amanda vanishes, people start turning up dead, with all of them writing out on a slab of closeby architecture — of course in blood — the same message she’d left behind.) But the writer and director of The Empty Man, David Prior, isn’t content having the movie’s best-developed feature — its sense of nebulous dread — be its defining characteristic. Subplots in this nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long movie abound; one of them involves a Scientology-like cult obsessed, like Amanda putatively was, with the Empty Man. It’s poorly developed. The more jumbled the movie gets, the sillier it feels; it packs more plot than necessary.
The ending is ambitiously ghastly — it has an unearthly Clive Barker-like nastiness. But it’s also so befuddling that it doesn’t strike us as scary. (We’re too bemused to be fearful.) I admired The Empty Man’s scope; I also liked the excellent prologue, which tells a seemingly self-contained story from decades past involving this legend. The prologue is like a masterful short film; it’s genuinely scary. But The Empty Man is too indecisive about what it wants to be to be effective horror, a genre that arguably requires more than others do that we really lose ourselves in the action — feel like we’re in a waking nightmare. The Empty Man is too busy, too concerned with explaining itself. You’re always thinking about its construction.
iolation, also on Shudder, repurposes another decades-old thriller category: the rape-and-revenge movie, a subgenre that was also notably recently revisited, to acclaim and scorn in equal measure, by
last year’s Promising Young Woman. Both films seriously grapple with the trauma of sexual assault and residual rage — things that hadn't been given quite as much nuanced consideration by their typically male-directed genre forebears of the 1970s and ‘80s. Violation is the darker of these two films. It’s an extremely (but purposefully) hard-to-watch story of a woman (Madeleine Sims-Fewer, who impressively also co-wrote and co-directed the movie with Dusty Mancinelli) who enacts vengeance on her brother-in-law (Jesse LaVercombe) after he betrays her trust one evening. The movie uncoils achronologically to reflect how one’s traumatic memories can tessellate. It also acutely aims for naturalism, going as far as, in one scene, watching its protagonist, Miriam, hurl for a little more than a minute straight in response to some of the violence she has wrought. (Though not so naturalistic that the filmmakers feel the need to dramatize the assault so frankly: comprised mostly of extreme closeups on patches on skin, eyelashes, and fingernails, Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli ensure Miriam’s attack doesn’t become further exploitative.)
Violation is an outstandingly shot and acted debut feature; its writer-directors also have keen ears for dialogue. They persuasively establish the rapport between Miriam and her brother-in-law (who were childhood friends) and the fraught dynamic Miriam has with her sister (Anna Maguire), which oscillates from playful to hostile and competitive. It’s a surprise that for all its other examples of attentiveness, though, Miriam’s background and interior life go largely unexamined. And her relationship with her husband (Obi Abili), so frail these days that divorce seems imminent, also remains one-noted. His character — additionally the only person of color in this all-white ensemble — feels like an afterthought in the movie’s purview. Violation still more than succeeds in what it sets out to do — thoughtfully reconsider rape-and-revenge-movie tropes so that they are stripped clean of their cinematic sensationalism, with more attention put onto its lead’s pain and indignation and more ambivalence around whether retributive violence is as therapeutic as it’s so often framed in movies. It’s brutally effective. That Violation is brutally effective should also be read as a caveat.
The Empty Man: C+