Lose 1d8 sanity: The Empty Man

Everybody, at some point in their lives, considers the idea that everything is meaningless.

I might be wrong about that, I suppose – perhaps there are a handful of souls out there blessed and/or innocent enough that they drift off to sleep at night untroubled by even the faint shadow of the fear that maybe it’s even worse than having made a fool of yourself at that party, or having been rejected by that beautiful person you loved so, or having no one to call on the blackest night of your life when there is only you and your thoughts and some questionable life choices in substance form, maybe none of this actually matters at all.

But if those folks exist, I don’t think I’ve ever met one.

I can only assume that David Prior’s had such thoughts quite regularly, based on his The Empty Man – a horror movie that I’m led to understand sells a rather different experience in the trailer than the one we actually get.

We open with a surprisingly-lengthy prologue in Bhutan, in which one of a small group of hikers has an encounter in a disturbing cavern that leaves him…injured? Semi-catatonic? Possessed? His friends can’t be sure, but let’s just say that when they all become stranded on the mountain overnight things Do Not Go Well for them. (I do not consider this a spoiler; this is a horror movie prologue, after all, and these are infamous for presenting us with characters who may not be with us all that long.)

From there, though, we transition abruptly to…Missouri (I cannot pretend I was not a little disappointed; how often do I get to see media products of any sort set in Bhutan?) Here the film introduces our true protagonist – James, a Broken Ex-Cop with one of those backstories one seems to require to become a Broken Ex-Cop. (You know the ones; they usually involve one or more dead family members and/or moments of personal weakness that leave our hero with lingering guilt.) We see him hang out briefly with a neighbor’s kid, a relatively ordinary-seeming teen except for the part where she seems very into the idea that perhaps none of our thoughts and ideas are really ours, that they are fed, or perhaps channeled, to us from some other place or being.

And then she disappears, her mother makes a plea for help, and we’re off to the races for a sort of smoky cocktail of urban legendry, oddly pleasant cults and their nihilistic leanings, and of course an exploration of our hero’s personal history and the truth(s) thereof.

It’s one of those movies about which I have some mixed feelings, I think. James Badge Dale as James is great – relatable, surprisingly funny at times. The visuals are well-executed and many scenes feature little easter-egg clues for those who are watching closely. There are several well-executed moments of surreal creepiness. The central conceits about meaninglessness and/or free will are uncommon and it’s interesting to see the way they’re handled here.

On the other hand: This film needs an editor. Or perhaps, as one of the reviews we looked at afterward suggested, it needs to be a TV miniseries instead of a movie. I love a slow burn, but this burn is very slow, more of a smolder much of the time. And yet, somehow, there is also so much going on: now it feels a bit like I Know What You Did Last Summer, now we have a bit that feels almost Midsommar-adjacent except for, well, the darkness of everything…And then there is the ending, which I could easily see inciting some rage in some viewers but does make sense with the other things the story’s trying to do, even if the reveals therein could maybe have done with a little more spacing between them.

The vibe I came away from this with most strongly, though? “Watching a game of Call of Cthulhu at the tabletop, only there’s just one player for some reason.” The way threads are picked up and then put down, the way there’s somehow simultaneously a couple of strong central ideas and kind of a jumble of things all round them, the way our protagonist is so very central to things (even, at one point, apparently encountering an urban legend in a way that would seem to “break the rules”). You can hear in your head the Keeper calling for a Sanity roll every so often.

Or, well, I can, because I am a giant nerd.

Should you watch it, hypothetical reader? Perhaps. Do you like the idea of sitting at the tabletop with a bowl of popcorn and a beverage, watching a player get themselves into all sorts of shit? Does the idea of an attractively-if-slightly-messily-presented meditation on meaninglessness appeal to you? Then go for it.

Movie night: No boating accident

Yesterday I did two things for the first time in a while: I made popcorn on the stove, and I watched Jaws.

I’d read in several places around the internets that the trick to not-soggy stovetop popcorn is to clarify your butter first (and/or use ghee); although my attempt at clarification seems to have been more of a thisclosetobrowning situation, I think I can mostly report a success here. Things sizzled and crackled and eventually settled into a lovely little golden-y pool with a toasted bit or two clinging to the bottom of the pan and just a fine layer of milk solids waiting to be scooped off the top.

Popped some corn in coconut oil, dumped it into a large bowl, ran a drizzle of clarified butter around the edge, toss, add salt, toss again, et voila. More popcorn than a sensible human or maybe even two sensible humans should probably be eating in a sitting, though as is the way of all popcorn it was disturbingly easy to scoop up and devour in great, salty fistfuls.

It made sense, then, with such a movie snack on hand, to settle in for one of – debatably the – original summer blockbusters. This movie is older than I am, older than my husband is; it takes place in a particular flavor of small-town New England that may not really even exist any more, one where the only way to really be of a place is to be born there. (One of the film’s many background conversations is about this very phenomenon: “When do I become an islander?” “Never; you weren’t born here!” I chuckled to myself, but I can relate to that a little. I wonder if I am properly of Toronto yet?)

Anyway. I’m not sure why I’m a little surprised to find that it holds up, but it really does. Oh, sure, by today’s special-effects standards the “practical” shark is a little creaky (though I do appreciate the sense of weight to it), but it’s also barely in the movie. Most of the film goes by without more than a fin, some ominous, groaning strings and the occasional panic-stricken swimmer.

The main draw here is the performances, really. All of them are great, from the Mayor (You guys. That. anchor. suit.) to Roy Scheider’s beleaguered Chief Brody to Richard Dreyfus’s Exasperated Smart Guy Hooper to…well. Quint. (And yes, that monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis is still a hell of a thing.)

Is there anything I can really say about this movie that has not been said ten thousand different ways by…everybody who has ever written anything about movies? Probably not.

Jaws isn’t a horror movie, not exactly, though it borrows some of the horror movie’s trappings. We know straightaway what the terror out there in the deep is – it’s right there on the damn poster. There is no real evidence for malice as humans know it or even particular intelligence here. We’re not gazing into the void of the cosmic unknown – we know exactly what that bigass shark is going to do. Hooper tells us what it will do explicitly. A Great White shark is a finely-tuned eating machine that does nothing but swim and eat and make more sharks.

And that is what it does, or tries to do, and it is only through being more of a tenacious #@%& than the flawless eating machine that anyone manages to paddle their way back to shore in the end.

So…horror? No, not really. A thriller, perhaps, or one of those man-vs-nature adventure films, borrowing a bit of that horror vibe for effect.

I will say, though – to a pair of eyes watching it in 2021 there sure do seem to be some parallels between the anchor-suit-wearing mayor’s reluctance to do the right thing and close the damn beaches in favor of The Economy and…well.

(gestures vaguely in the direction of Outside)

I wonder what proportion of Amity Island would believe the shark was a hoax if the film were made today. Would some of them refuse to get out of the water? To close up shop? To stop running tours or whatever else it is they do?

Would even blood in the water convince them?

Anyway. The movie may predate me, but it’s still a worthwhile watch.

Bring some popcorn.

“I myself am strange and unusual.”

Last night I watched “Beetlejuice” again for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long.

Which I guess makes this a good time to let anyone looking at this know: This post may contain spoilers for a movie released 33 years ago. I believe this puts it beyond the spoiler statute of limitations, but if you’re concerned, stop reading now.

When that movie was released in 1988 I was under the age of ten; in the age of videotape I watched it over and over, drawn to the raw, weird imagination on display as well as the somewhat-macabre humor. It’s startling how well I remembered it. I was able to quote along with many of the lines, the imagery still quite fresh in my mind in many places.

…And yet, re-watching as an adult it’s also kind of interesting to see what things I did not remember. What things I didn’t even really register properly at the time, because there are things kids don’t so much think about.

Here are a few of the things that whooshed over my head as a Little Person:

  • The casual hurtfulness of the realtor’s eager, benign insistence to Barbara Maitland that “this house is too big for you! It should belong to -” To a family with children, obviously, and the look on Geena Davis’s face says it all. Oof.
  • The equally casual hatefulness of yuppies, at least the ones in this film. The status-seeking and the social-climbing and the hankering to turn absolutely everything – everything! – into money haven’t really gone away of course; now these people run tech startups, and instead of weird, cold edgy designs without warmth like those favored by Delia Deetz they favor bland, benign, equally cold designs that are meant to suggest warmth without containing any. (If I were a ghost and one of them moved into my house, I would also be rather peeved.)
  • How sleazy Betelgeuse actually is. Little-kid me hadn’t yet been catcalled and had no context in which to be grossed out by his rapacious pursuit of anything remotely female in the vicinity, including Lydia (who has got to be underage, you guys. Ick on a number of levels).
  • Why exactly Otho flees screaming into the night after finding himself in a different outfit. Hey, I didn’t know what a leisure suit was back then.

Adult me also appreciates in a way that the younger me did not that the thing about the afterlife that seems to cause the most trouble is that it is a badly-managed bureaucracy, one that doesn’t give the people it supposedly serves good direction and which seems to be strangely low on resources considering that one would presumably not need to pay anyone who works there anything. I wonder if there’s something there that is reflective of the general mistrust of government/the centralization of power that was, I’m pretty sure, building even in 1988. (Admittedly going with a private contractor in this case was a fairly awful plan, too, so maybe the real philosophical underpinning there is something along the lines of “Hey! Fund public services damn it!”)

…then again, who or what exactly would be “funding” the management of the afterlife? Hmm. Clearly I am overthinking this.

It’s an Extremely 80s Movie in a number of ways, though you can definitely feel the beginnings of some of that 90s irony creeping in there. I’m not sure whether you’d be able to get away with making it these days, but I’m going to have this particular infectious little ditty in my head for a good long while, so let’s share: