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You need to watch the scariest cult thriller on HBO Max ASAP

This 2020 thriller slipped through the pandemic cracks, but it could be a new modern classic.

Saying Covid changed horror would be an understatement.

In a world where 2011’s Contagion was one of this last year’s most-watched movies on Netflix, seemingly out of both morbid curiosity and pressing concern, how we define horror has definitely shifted.

Where does that leave the horror films slated for a 2020 release? For one spooky cult thriller, it meant a criminally underseen release. Here’s why you should check out this gem now that it’s streaming on HBO Max.

The Empty Man is a 2020 film written and directed by David Prior (no relation to iconic director David A. Prior, who created the cheesy stinker Killer Workout) and released by 20th Century Fox in the last days before “Fox” was dropped from the name. Both of these elements, plus a pandemic release, spelled financial doom for the film, and it barely brushed $4 million at the box office.

But that’s no assessment of its chilling, enigmatic story. The Empty Man has all the hallmarks of a great horror film. It even kicks off with a thrilling 20-minute cold open, following four friends on a hike after one of them encounters a strange being and slips into a fugue state. This opening plays like an effective mini-movie all its own, but it also serves a purpose within the bigger narrative, which centers on ex-cop James Lasombra (James Badge Dale) as he investigates the disappearance of his neighbor’s daughter Amanda (Sasha Frovola).

Amanda, a teen with a truly unfortunate haircut, visits James before she disappears, telling him she’s found peace in realizing nothing is real, that reality itself is fake. It’s typical edgy teen nihilism, like when A.J. tells his dad God is dead in The Sopranos. But in this case, there’s an uneasy truth behind her words.

James talks to Amanda about reality itself.

As James tries to follow the clues leading to Amanda’s whereabouts, he encounters a cult, an old wives’ tale about bridges and bottles, and a hazy limbo dimension where he must question everything he believes to be true, from his own personal history to his darkest secrets.

It’s probably for this reason that The Empty Man wasn’t embraced by critics. The filmmaking choices are avant-garde to the point where the audience, like James and the rest of the characters, can’t separate truth from fantasy. Prior even admitted to Thrillist the cut released to theaters wasn’t his final edit; apparently, the original test screening was so bad that he didn’t even want his name associated with it.

But somehow, out of that mess, a pandemic, and a labyrinthine plot, The Empty Man delivers a story that is deceptively immersive. Before you know it, you’ll be questioning whether the Empty Man is nothing more than an urban legend — or the very being that ties reality together.

The Empty Man is now streaming on HBO Max.

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