Say what you will about incompetence, sometimes it lends a film character. Oh, sure, well-made film has its own character as well, in all kinds of ways, too. But it’s often (not always, but often) the case that ineptitude has its own vision, its own particular stamp that makes an awful film something that’s still an experience. It may not be good by any metric, but it’s still got personality, even if that personality is shitty. I’m not a huge fan of “so bad it’s good” or ironic enjoyment, but even the cruddiest films I’ve watched still feel like one of a kind, even if I hate them.
Nothing Left To Fear is not one of those films. It is a completely and totally average horror film. It isn’t bad, but it’s not especially good either. It’s just sort of there, reliant on clichés to the point of being utterly characterless. It just manages to do a good enough job to not be bad, but not good enough to be good, either, and it relies on a lot of devices and imagery whose novelty had already worn off by the time it came out. It’s hard to describe, but the whole thing feels like it was put together by some kind of algorithm intended to design maximum-profit horror film product units.
(As a side note, it’s never really made clear why it’s called Nothing Left To Fear. It doesn’t really have anything to do with anything in the movie. It feels as focus-grouped as everything else about it.)
Dan Bramford and his squeaky-clean family (wife Wendy, oldest daughter Becky, middle child Mary, youngest son Christopher) move to the rural town of Stull, as Dan has taken the job of being the town’s new pastor. They get a little turned around trying to find the town and end up at a farm asking for directions. The farmer is initially hostile until he realizes Dan’s the new pastor, and then he’s much more welcoming. Meanwhile, a figure appears in the foreground, hands covered in blood.
Oh but wait, that’s just hunky farmboy Noah, who gets Becky’s eye immediately...
...even though he’s...slaughtering and bleeding a bunch of sheep?
There’s ample precedent for The Small Town With A Secret in horror films like The Children Of The Corn and Jug Face, all sort of revolving around the idea that there is always a price to be paid for the town’s continued prosperity or even just their existence. Often the price is sacrifice, and it’s usually couched in religion. It’s no different here. The townspeople are all very welcoming - even offering to help move the Bramfords into their new home in lieu of the moving crew. A kindly old lady even bakes them a welcoming cake! It isn’t until Becky (who is sort of telegraphed as a prototypical Final Girl almost from the get-go) has a really disturbing dream that we get the sense that something in this town might not be completely right. Well, that and that we’re watching a horror movie. But the disturbing dream is relatively formulaic, relying mostly on lots of lightning, people appearing and disappearing outside the window, and then one suddenly appearing inside, face hollow-eyed and grotesquely contorted in the early 2010’s go-to shorthand for “ghost.” Had this film been made in the early 00s, it would have been a little girl with long hair covering her face instead, is what I’m saying.
And sure enough, Becky’s dream is prescient, as it turns out the entire town is keeping some terrible secret, involving the reason Dan’s family was brought to town. As it turns out, the town of Stull has an awful responsibility as the site of some kind of gateway into hell, or at least some dimension of evil. (And apparently, the actual town of Stull, Kansas does suffer from urban legends that repute it to be the site of a gateway to hell.) This responsibility involves regular rituals intended to keep the evil at bay, not just from Stull, but from the world. And so the townspeople are organized, either in commission or omission, in the performance of this responsibility. It’s going to cost lives, but this is the way it has to be. Not because the townspeople are evil or even selfish, but because they have come to realize that sometimes terrible things have to be done in order to keep others safe.
And under other circumstances, this would actually be a pretty good premise. That it’s not just a town full of thoughtless malevolence or mindless drones is definitely a step up where this particular set of clichés is concerned. Life in a small town is already a pretty solid engine for paranoia, where there’s nowhere to run or hide and everyone knows everyone else’s business (or invents business when deprived of the real story), and so the idea that this closeness also implies conspiracy, where every passerby on the street is watching you and knows something, that would be a nice basis for tension, especially when the protagonists are newcomers, unfamiliar with the ways of the town. Dan’s family is largely complacent, happy to be settled into their new home, unquestioning, but that’s as it should be, because people do not live in horror films. Becky seems to be the only one who isn’t comfortable, and this again makes sense because she’s a teenage girl and is probably not thrilled with having to pick up stakes and move to the middle of nowhere after years in the city. Unfortunately, it also kind of marks her out right away - along with putative love interest Noah - as the ones who are going to make it through whatever comes next, and the film doesn’t really subvert that point.
That it does subvert the idea that what’s being done is evil for evil’s sake is good, but it doesn’t put enough time or effort into articulating what that means. Noah’s all pouty and stompy about it in the first half of the film (for reasons that become apparent but probably also have more to do with his feelings for Becky than much else), before shit pops off, but everyone else just sort of mouths a lot of cryptic fluff about people being “chosen” and how this is the Lord’s will. Kingsman, the pastor whom Dan is supposed to be replacing, does show some flashes of sadness and resolve - he’s aware that this is not what was intended, but the experience of shepherding this town seems to have reshaped his faith. As he says at one point, there aren’t any angels coming. It’s just us. But that’s all it gets is a little bit of talk - it doesn’t really show up in the other townspeople’s behavior toward the Bramfords or in any other little background ways that might have contributed to an air of mystery.
And mystery - or really any kind of mood or atmosphere - is notably absent here. The people in this film aren’t caricatures, but they also don’t have much opportunity to be people outside of their specific scenes either, if that makes sense. The family is just sort of a generic family, without a lot of sense of relationship dynamics or quirks, and the townspeople are largely just extras, just sort of people filling space in the scene without giving it any personality. The lighting and camerawork is perfectly serviceable, but not much else (with the exception of one reasonably well-realized dream sequence involving Becky that could have replaced the really ham-handed one earlier in the film that I mentioned above), and the dialogue feels just enough like dialogue instead of conversation to make it harder to close the distance between the characters and the audience. None of it is egregiously bad or inept, but that just ends up making it feel bland.
And then when everything does go off, it’s just as formulaic as everything else. Evil enters our world in the form of a possessed person, all contortions and black eye and mouth makeup, preceded by tendrils of computer-generated darkness and corruption that evoked in me only the feeling that that must have been where most of their effects budget went, and by gum they were going to make sure we saw as much of it as they could manage. The evil walks free in Stull, as it must (for reasons that are never quite made clear - apparently the only way to keep the gate shut is to...open it? And then shut it? Like so much else about their responsibility, it’s just kind of hand-waved), and the residents are prepared, all the blood Noah collected used to paint their doors (in a nice Biblical nod), and what must happen happens, and so the film comes to a close in a manner much like the rest of it - not at all surprising. Not bad, it is not a bad ending, just as it isn’t a bad film. Just one so predictable and expected as to rob it of any impact or opportunity to evoke any sort of emotion in the viewer apart from “well, that happened.”
Available on Netflix (DVD only)