The Empty Man, Come True, and the Art of the Ending

Evan Jonigkeit as Greg in 20th Century Studios’ THE EMPTY MAN. Photo by Ilze Kitshoff. © 2020 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Endings can often make or break a story, especially if the story in question is meant to be scary. In the case of many horror movies, what do you do? Do you give the audience the catharsis of seeing their characters overcome whatever evil they’re facing? Do you go bleaker, maybe have them die from the evil? Do you go somewhere in-between like in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, where the protagonist escapes but the killers are still out there? It all comes down to the point that the story is trying to make. A good ending is a punctuation mark on the sentence of the story. It should feel satisfying on some level, even if the heroes don’t necessarily make it out alive.

The reason I’m going on about this is because I recently saw two movies that I was in love with for most of their run times. The Empty Man and Come True are both excellent in a lot of ways, even masterful during certain scenes. But both of them had endings that left me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Before we continue, I feel it prudent to say that I still recommend both of these films. I think they’re skillfully made and the good more than outweighs the bad in them. Suffice it to say that I’m going to be spoiling what happens in each movie, so if you have an interest in either film, I’d recommend coming back to this article once you’ve seen them.

The Empty Man

The trailer for The Empty Man is quite misleading; it almost looks like a knockoff of the critical darling The Bye Bye Man. While there are certainly some plot similarities between the two movies, The Empty Man is thankfully much more than a cheap knockoff. For those who don’t know, the film follows James, an ex-cop who investigates the disappearance of his neighbor’s daughter. She has seemingly joined a cult that is tied to a mysterious entity known as—you guessed it—The Empty Man. The urban legend behind this thing is that if you blow into a bottle on a bridge at night, you’ll be haunted by the Empty Man, eventually meeting your end at his hands.

A teenage girl sits on a bridge in the middle of the night

It’s a pretty generic premise, but one that is entirely elevated by outstanding filmmaking and ambitious pacing. The movie’s opening, which lasts about twenty minutes or so, is outstanding. It’s filled with tension and intrigue, and it ties into the plot’s revelations in a pretty neat way. Taken as its own isolated short film, I’d argue that the opening is borderline perfect; and it’s not the only outstanding sequence.

At two hours and twenty minutes, the run time is intimidating, but the film more than justifies that length thanks to the pitch-perfect pacing of individual scenes. Sequences that would only be a few minutes in other movies often go on significantly longer. One notable example is the outstanding scene on the bridge where the missing girl and her friends summon The Empty Man. Another is the unbearably intense bonfire scene where James witnesses a ritual of sorts in the middle of the night.

The movie knows exactly how long to make these scenes in order to squeeze every drop of tension and mystery from them. It helps that the movie looks fantastic; the aforementioned bridge scene makes fantastic use of space, making you feel like you’re one of the teenagers in that very moment. I’m sure the deliberate pacing would try some people’s patience, but I absolutely loved it. The mystery builds and builds in these scenes, with the constant question of what’s going on lingering in the back of the viewer’s mind.

It’s thoroughly absorbing stuff. So, while the premise isn’t exactly original, the execution is creepy, unnerving, and thought-provoking. It feels like a giant puzzle the movie is putting together, and that’s great. The problem is that the final chunk of the movie feels so, so clunky compared to how well-executed everything leading up to it is.

For most of the film’s run time, the goals of the cult are somewhat unclear; it’s obvious that The Empty Man is somehow tied into their beliefs, but the direct connection isn’t so obvious. Instead, the title is a clever subversion, because the Empty Man isn’t the entity that goes around killing people based off an urban legend. The Empty Man refers to the sole survivor of the movie’s opening.

It turns out that the man who survived the doomed expedition into the mountains lost his sense of being. He is an empty shell, leading to something on the other side of existence channeling its power through him. It turns out that the cloaked killer that haunts the movie’s characters is a Tulpa, a thoughtform that comes from a group of people focusing on the same idea. The reason the cloaked killer exists is that people believe in him. The cult, by virtue of being around the comatose Empty Man, is able to give form to their thoughts and beliefs.

It’s not the first time a Tulpa has been used in horror media, but it’s an inventive one for sure. And if it had been left at that, I would have been mostly satisfied. The idea of some ambiguous, unknowable force giving a cult power through the use of a coma patient is really interesting. It’s almost cosmic horror-y in a way.

A large group of people circle a massive bonfire in the woods

But the letdown comes from the final revelation that James, the man trying to make sense of all of this, is in fact a Tulpa himself. He has memories of a life filled with mistakes and regret, but none of it is real. He’s only three days old, and his sole purpose is to become the new Empty Man since the old one is about to die. To me, this deflates a lot of the tension and intrigue that the movie had been building. Suddenly, the storyline I found myself heavily invested in and absorbed by lost a lot of its meaning. After all, every single event in the movie was orchestrated by the cult, meaning that James truly had no sense of agency.

There is terror to be found in that idea, of course; the idea that we have no control over what happens to us runs counter to so many other stories. However, where the rest of the movie felt confident and beautifully executed, this revelation comes across as confusing and muddled. It should be noted that the film is based on a graphic novel miniseries, and I’m not sure how closely it follows the source material because I haven’t read it yet. But taken as its own story, the ending feels like something of a cop-out, like it’s cheated the audience slightly.

It remains scary throughout, which is why it’s not quite as bad as the next movie I’m going to talk about, but I still would have enjoyed a different ending. I’m not sure what would have worked. Maybe James could have become a cult member himself? In any case, thanks to beautiful filmmaking and a real, palpable sense of tension and anxiety, The Empty Man has a lot to offer fans of slow-burn horror; however, it drops the ball with its ending.

Come True

Come True is basically the horror movie equivalent of the 2011 film Drive. Don’t believe me? Consider the film’s aesthetic, which is heavy on moody lighting, long takes that focus on a single image, a plot that appears generic at first but is elevated by the execution, and the fact that Electric Youth features prominently in the soundtrack. This is clearly a movie inspired by the 80s, but it manages to feel like its own thing thanks to the level of care that went into so much of it.

Three people walk in the woods at night guided by a flashlight

The film is about a young woman named Sarah who has seen better days (an unknown incident has led her to choose homelessness). One day, she comes across an ad for a sleep study. All she has to do is let scientists hook up some machinery to her while she sleeps. The thing is that she’s been plagued by nightmares of endless darkness and abstract, Silent Hill-esque creatures. It turns out the other people in the sleep study have been experiencing similar nightmares, and it soon becomes clear that something more is going on than just a sleep study.

I truly can’t stress enough how much I adore this film’s aesthetic. Everything is put under gentle but colorful lighting, and the nightmare sequences are some of the most unsettling scenes I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. The camera work lingers where other movies would edit to another angle, leading to a nice, relaxed pace that lets the viewer soak in the gorgeous scenery on display in both the real world and the nightmares. It doesn’t rush to get anywhere, and it’s better for it.

The mystery that builds is also very creepy; as the film goes on, there is an implication that the people seeing these things while they sleep are windows for some unknown force. Much like The Empty Man, Come True wisely keeps the nature of this force ambiguous, letting the viewer fill in the blanks on their own. While a lesser movie might have used something like a mythological demon to explain what these people are seeing, here the viewer knows that something is on the other side, but they don’t know exactly what, and that uncertainty is very scary.

I also loved the lead performance of Sarah, played by Julia Sarah Stone. She is stressed in a way that could have come across as cheesy and unrealistic in a more straightforward movie, but the choices she makes make Sarah feel like a real, albeit troubled, person. I felt bad for her; I wanted her to get better, to find some peace, even if that simply meant leaving her real-world problems unresolved but overcoming her nightmares. She went a long way towards making me give a damn about the story.

And I was invested for about 98% of the run time. Much like The Empty Man, Come True’s deliberate pacing feels like a tool rather than a detriment. The slow panning shots as the viewer sees her nightmares are always effective. I was on edge during every single one of these thanks to the simple but terrifying aesthetic and the fact that the movie took its time. The slow pace lets the viewer think about what they’re seeing, and the fact that we don’t know exactly what we’re seeing makes it that much scarier. It’s a beautiful yet very unnerving movie, one that feels like a long-time director flexing their creative muscles.

Until the ending, that is. Sarah develops a relationship with one of the scientists, a handsome young man named Jeremy, and as the movie nears its conclusion, he seems to be a support system for her. I thought that maybe the movie would have an optimistic ending, but instead, the final scene sees Sarah in the room where they first had sex. She’s on top, except Jeremy is dead, throat ripped out. She wanders into the bathroom to find she has vampire fangs, and eventually receives a message telling her that she’s been in a coma for twenty years and that if she can see the message, she needs to break free. Cut to credits.

There are very, very rare instances where this kind of ending works, but this is not one of those times. To me, this twist is straight out of a bargain bin, z-grade movie that Redbox would only carry for a week before moving on. All the intrigue, all the suspense, mystery, and sympathy that had been built up just disappeared from the film in its last five minutes.

There are, in retrospect, small hints here and there that this is the case (such as a bizarre instance where an image of Jeremy in her head has vampire fangs) but it still feels like director and co-writer Anthony Scott Burns simply couldn’t think of how to end his movie. The care put into the individual scenes leads me to believe that the film was a passion project for him, and this ending is the exact opposite of careful. It’s sloppy and really disappointing.

A mysterious figure with glowing eyes looks at the camera

After all, it’s unclear just how much of the movie actually “happened.” Is the entire thing just her coma dream? Did Sarah enter the coma shortly after entering the sleep study? Did she go into a coma when Jeremy showed her the images the other participants were seeing while sleeping? I really don’t know, and to me, this was not the kind of story that should leave you wondering what actually “happened” and what didn’t. The rest of it was so inventive and unique that the “it’s just a dream” ending felt like someone lost the last couple pages of the script and replaced them with the final pages of another one.

And the thing that gets me the most is that I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel after this ending. Whereas The Empty Man at least connected its ending with the rest of the movie, Come True feels muddled. Is the message that some people are living in a perpetual nightmare they will never escape? Is it about the malleability of reality? Is it questioning what the difference between dreams and reality even is? I really don’t know.

And this thematic ambiguity can work in certain specific circumstances, but here it simply didn’t. Even more so than The Empty Man, I felt like Come True pulled a fast one on me. I was absolutely loving it up to its final few minutes, so for it to pull out such a hack twist was an extreme letdown. I am completely on board for whatever Anthony Scott Burns makes next, as there is real talent both in front of and behind the camera of Come True. But I’m really hoping his next movie is able to stick the landing.

At least the movie’s soundtrack is incredible, though.

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Written by Collin Henderson

Collin has loved all things horror since he was a wee lad, as long as it's not filled with jump scares. He holds up It Follows as the greatest horror film ever made, and would love to hear your thoughts on why he's wrong about that. He's written a couple of books called Lemon Sting and Silence Under Screams, and lives in Massachusetts.

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