For die-hards, no horror movie can be too scary. But for you, a wimp, the wrong one can leave you miserable. Never fear, scaredies, because Slate’s Scaredy Scale is here to help. We’ve put together a highly scientific and mostly spoiler-free system for rating new horror movies, comparing them with classics along a 10-point scale. And because not everyone is scared by the same things—some viewers can’t stand jump scares, while others are haunted by more psychological terrors or simply can’t stomach arterial spurts—it breaks down each movie’s scares across three criteria: suspense, spookiness, and gore.
This time: The Empty Man, an uncategorizable two-and-half-hour mindfuck originally filmed in 2017, left partly unfinished, and then shelved for several years before it was finally dumped in theaters last October. At first the story of missing hikers in the 1990s, and then the story of an ex-cop on the trail of a neighbor’s missing daughter, and then … a lot more than that, the movie attracted little notice initially, but in the months since it arrived to streaming in January, it has summoned a steady drumbeat of horror-nerd plaudits. They’ve variously dubbed it “the next great cult horror film” and “the pandemic’s horror cult classic,” and the movie’s profile just keeps rising. What is this strange horror epic, and, more important, would it be tolerable for you, a certified scaredy? We break it down below.
Sorry to say The Empty Man mostly knows what it’s doing with its shocks, and they are early and plentiful. You know that thing in horror movies where a menacing figure is just standing there in the distance, then all of the sudden sprints toward a probable victim? I hate that thing. This one has a doozy in the first 15 minutes.
There will be viscera: stabbings, shootings, decomposing dogs, hangings, you name it. This is no Saw, however—if you are fine with most slasher movies, you’ll probably be fine with this.
The Empty Man’s bravura 22-minute prologue, as four hikers deal with an accident and a very unfortunate discovery in the Bhutanese mountains in 1995, had me reeling. I should not have watched that shit home alone. If that had been the whole movie, I would tell all scaredies to run. But there are still two hours to go, and as The Empty Man proceeds, it becomes a quite strange mishmash of horror genres that is more beguiling than truly horrific. Haunted I am not. But … that opening sequence. And lots of other terrible stuff! If you have a hard time getting gory images or disturbing scenarios out of your head, this one may not be for you.
It is above the Scaredy Scale’s pay grade to determine if The Empty Man is a new horror cult classic—and in any case, that’s typically determined by time, not contemporary viewers. But the sheer amount of movie here manages to pack in plenty of terrible things that flip our meter well past midway in every category. Tread lightly, ’fraidy nation.